Protestant Reformers


J. Daryl Charles
Faculty, Chattanooga Fellows Program;
Affiliated Scholar, John Jay Institute

In notable contrast to the splintered nature of Protestantism and the countless theological fads found within her borders, contemporary Protestants who otherwise have very little in common nevertheless share common ground in their opposition to natural-law thinking. This opposition, moreover, is not limited to revisionist thinkers; it characterizes those who are confessionally orthodox as well.[1] Across Protestantism one can find a broader consensus that rejects the natural law as a metaphysical notion of moral reality, namely, a law that God communicates to all without the need for special revelation (such as the Bible), and that therefore applies to all people at all times and in all places.[2] For this reason, one is hard-pressed to identify a single major figure in Protestant theological ethics who has developed and defended a theory of natural law.[3]

However deeply entrenched the natural law’s neglect or opposition is among today’s Protestants, it cannot be attributed to the magisterial Reformers of the sixteenth century.[4]Although it is decidedly true that they championed a particular understanding of grace and faith that took issue with their Roman Catholic counterparts, this was not to the exclusion of other vehicles of divine agency.[5] Rather, they assumed the natural law as a part of the fabric of the created order and therein maintained continuity with those across the Reformation divide. It is accurate to insist that in their nature the Reformation controversies were foremost theological and ecclesiastical, not ethical.[6]

Martin Luther

Notwithstanding Luther’s outbursts against Aristotelian philosophy,[7] natural-law assumptions are firmly ensconced in Luther’s thought. In his 1525 treatise How Christians Should Regard Moses, the reformer distinguishes between the Law of Moses, with its historically conditioned components and stipulations for theocratic Israel, and the natural law.[8] “If the Ten Commandments are to be regarded as Moses’ law, then Moses came too late,” Luther can wryly quip, since “Moses agrees exactly with nature” and “what Moses commands is nothing new.” Moreover, Moses “also addressed himself to far too few people, because the Ten Commandments had spread over the whole world not only before Moses but even before Abraham and all the patriarchs. For even if a Moses had never appeared and Abraham had never been born, the Ten Commandments would have had to rule in all men from the very beginning, as they indeed did and still do.[9] “Where . . . the Mosaic law and the natural law are one, there the law remains and is not abrogated externally.”[10] By contrast, those aspects of the Mosaic code that were temporal and confined to theocratic Israel are said to be “null and void” and “not supported by the natural law.”[11]

Luther further deliberates in his treatise Temporal Authority over particular situations in the public square that involve Christians and non-Christians—among these, the unlawful seizure of private property and the settling of financial debts. He exhorts his readers to use both “the law of love” and “the natural law.” However, where the former has no observable effect, the latter is to be our guide, since it is that “with which all reason is filled” and the very “spring of justice.”[12]

Luther’s position is unambiguous: the moral norms that apply to all people, Christians and non-Christians, are the same; there are not two different ethical standards within the realm of divine law. Luther adopts the basic understanding of natural law that had been set forth by fellow reformer Philip Melanchthon in the latter’s commentary on Rom. 2:15: the natural law is “a common judgment to which all men alike assent, and therefore one which God has inscribed upon the soul of each man.”[13] Everyone, observes Luther, must acknowledge that what the natural law dictates in the human heart is right and true. There is no one, he insists, who does not sense the effects of the natural law, since nature and “the law written on the heart” (Rom. 2:14-15) attest to it.[14] For Luther, the natural law was presumed to be operative within all people and thus lodged at the core of Christian social ethics. Were this not the case, “one would have to teach and practice the law for a long time before it became the concern of conscience,” without which it would not become a matter of conscience for anyone.[15]

Philip Melanchthon

In 1518 a young and remarkably gifted linguist received a call from the Elector of Saxony to fill a newly created professorship of Greek at the University of Wittenberg.[16] Luther appears to have been moved by Philip Melanchthon’s inaugural lecture at Wittenberg. Though far more “ecumenical” and “humanistic” than Luther—he had studied classical literature at the University of Tübingen—Melanchthon nevertheless shared the Lutheran burden to counter Pelagian tendencies in the Church. Because of sin, human beings do not possess the capacity to know God through reason unaided. For this reason, justification is to be understood in Pauline terms, namely, by faith alone—which is to say, a forensic imputation via divine grace—and not to be confused with sanctification, which is a life-long process.

It is difficult to over-emphasize Melanchthon’s role in debates between the Lutheran reformers and the Catholic Church from 1520 onward. This can be seen in the fact that he drafted or helped draft three significant documents: the Augsburg Confession (1530), the Apology of the Augsburg Confession (1531), and the Smalkald Articles (1537). With Luther, Melanchthon distinguished between law and gospel and thus the role of faith in theological justification.[17] At the same time, he contended, law was necessary to restrain the wickedness of the human heart and maintain civil-political order. Moreover, because justice and the moral order remain constant, Christian believers can be involved in the high calling of political activity, contrary to the view of the “radical” reformers. To do this, moral law is requisite.

For Melanchthon, the laws of nature that, for example, govern astronomy and the cosmos point to the natural law insofar as “law” corresponds with regularity and normativity.[18]Regularity in nature, coupled with various species of intuitive knowing (for example, experience, reasoning and revelation), informs moral philosophy.[19] For the magisterial reformers, this link is important inter alia because of the Protestant focus on providence and because the claims of the “radical” reformers were viewed as undermining the social and political order.[20] Consistent with Luther and Calvin, Melanchthon stresses a threefold manner in which law functions: it is paedagogical in that it teaches us of the divine character; it is theological insofar as it brings people to faith by revealing their fallenness; and it is political in its usage to the extent that it restrains human inclinations and maintains a civil order.[21] The significance of the three “uses” of law is that it occupies a middle ground between Roman Catholic legalism and radical Anabaptist antinomianism in the sixteen century. That is, if law is not per se salvific, what is its significance and what are its functions?[22]

In Articles 5 through 8 and 14 of his Loci Communes, Melanchthon acknowledges that even though keeping the Ten Commandments does not merit justification, the unbelieving person nevertheless must abide by them because as an expression of the natural law they mirror divine law. And although no person can keep them perfectly, the “natural light” of reason informs every human being that compliance is demanded in human social life. Reason and revelation, for Melanchthon, co-exist, and neither is threatened or undermined by the other.[23]

Two broader loci or focal points weave their way throughout Melanchthon’s theological system and, by his own concession, they occupy Melanchthon his entire career. One is the nature of righteousness or justification, and how this justification is known. The other, though much broader, concerns the nature of human traditions and how to understand them.[24] For this reason, law occupies a central place in Melanchthon’s thinking,[25] prompting one German philosopher to label him “the ethicist of the Reformation.”[26] For both Luther and Melanchthon, God’s “hidden” presence in earthly kingdoms (i.e., the Lutheran “two-kingdom” theory) suggests that while order, law, and justice are not salvific, they are part of the order of creation and maintained by God, hence the importance of the natural law.

John Calvin

Given the emphasis on divine sovereignty and human depravity in Calvin’s theological system, one might assume that the reformer had a dim view of the natural law. Such, however, is not the case.[27] Notwithstanding the ravages of sin, Calvin is keenly aware of St. Paul’s argument in Romans that the Gentiles “show the work of the law written on their hearts” (Rom. 2:14). Calvin’s uses of the law—ceremonial, judicial, and moral—presuppose his conviction that there are aspects of human law that are both binding and non-binding.[28]

Calvin affirms the Thomist-Aristotelian assumption that “by nature man is a social animal.” Because of this anthropological reality, man is disposed “from natural instinct, to preserve society,” the result of which is that “human societies must be regulated by law,” without which there would be no civil order.[29] The seeds of these laws, insists Calvin, are “implanted in the breasts of all without a lawgiver” and unaffected by the vicissitudes of life; neither war nor catastrophe nor theft nor human disagreement can alter these moral intuitions, since nothing can eliminate “the primary idea of justice” within.[30]

Of the general themes that form the heart of Calvin’s theology, divine majesty and divine sovereignty—by which the world is ordered—feature prominently in Calvin’s thinking. The divine law expresses itself in the natural law, and hence, is construed to be an extension of divine providence. It is a “providential bridle”[31] that demonstrates the indivisible link between cosmic and moral orders, and human conscience, by nature, is able to discern this connection.

Because man is a social animal, he is disposed, by nature, toward the preservation of society. Calvin observes that “the minds of all have impressions of civil order” and that “every individual understands how human societies must be regulated by law.”[32] “We certainly cannot say that they [the Gentiles] are altogether blind as to the rule of life,” he insists, for nothing is more common than for humans “to be sufficiently instructed in right conduct by natural law.”[33]

How corrupt is the human heart, in Calvin’s view? Thoroughly. And there is no realm of human experience that has gone untouched by the common human condition of sin. But to acknowledge the pervasiveness of human depravity, for Calvin, is not to obliterate the rudimentary moral sense in each person.[34] Rather, “conscience” is an awareness in humans beings of moral accountability which “does not let them hide their sins but arraigns them as guilty,” since it “does not allow man to suppress within himself what he knows, but pursues him to the point of making him acknowledge his guilt.”[35]

The natural law, for Calvin, constitutes an important aspect of knowing “the rule for the conduct of life.” On this point he is insistent: if Gentiles by nature have “law righteousness” engraved upon their minds, we surely cannot say that they are utterly blind as to the conduct of life; otherwise, they could not be deemed “without excuse” (cf. Rom. 1:20).[36] Notwithstanding the emphasis in his teachings on human depravity, Calvin cannot be interpreted as saying that humans are incapable of basic moral reasoning. Rather, he sides with St. Paul: “natural law is that apprehension of the conscience which distinguishes sufficiently between just and unjust, and which deprives men of the excuse of ignorance while it proves them guilty by their own testimony.”[37] The reformer acknowledges that despite “man’s perverted and degenerate nature,” the image of God is not “totally annihilated and destroyed”; to the contrary, “some sparks still shine” in human creation.[38]

Huldreich Zwingli

The threefold use of the law, for which the Protestant reformers are well known, finds supplemental use—belonging to the judicial realm—in the Swiss Reformational emphasis on covenant. The use of the biblical concept of covenant as a sociopolitical idea emerges particularly in the writings and work of the Swiss Reformers. Covenant not only provides a theological basis for understanding divine work in history, but conjoined to the natural law it furnishes the basis for communal, civil and moral obligations that are thought binding on all human beings and all societies.[39]

In the political theology of Zwingli,[40] a Swiss priest who began preaching the Reformation in 1519, covenant and natural law function together as a buttress against tyranny and as a safeguard of citizens’ natural rights. In Zwinglian thought, the natural law serves as a bulwark and primary means by which to resist injustice and political oppression. With even greater emphasis than that of Luther, Zwingli understands “the law of nature”—that which is “implanted by God on the heart of man and confirmed by the grace of God through Christ”—to be the basis for all human laws.[41] Mirroring the distinctive features of the Swiss Reformation, Zwingli believes that due to the imperfection of reason, only those rulers and magistrates who are God-fearers properly know the natural law.[42] This appears to be an outgrowth of his thoroughgoing biblicism and the fact that, for him, natural law tends to become assimilated into divine law whereby the Lutheran distinction between law and gospel recedes.[43] Zwingli’s goal was not a Christian societyper se; rather, he believed that God had ordained through the state—and a Christian magistrate—the best possible order in which citizens might flourish. This type of order is enhanced through the concept of covenant, which is on display both in Israel of the Old Covenant and the church in the New.[44]

Law, as the Swiss reformers understood it, has two primary functions: it echoes grace insofar as it is a gift from the Creator; and it has a civil-political use in that the civil authorities protect the moral-social order by punishing evildoers and rewarding those who do good. Natural law, thus, expresses both divine and human justice. Because of the depravity of the human heart, Zwingli reasons, humans are incapable of acting justly and hence need the “restraining” influence that comes from the law divinely imprinted on the human heart – an imprint that gives all people a basic knowledge of good and evil. Without this restraining influence, society would descend into anarchy.[45] The natural law and covenant combine to serve as a necessary safeguard against such disorder.

Scholarship across virtually all disciplines has for the most part been inattentive to the impact of 16th-century Protestant thinking as it influenced the development of Western legal institutions.[46] Although Protestant belief, due to its accent on faith, grace, and unmerited favor, understood itself as a return to biblical foundations, it is correct to insist that the Protestant affirmation of the natural law was in continuity with Roman Catholic moral theology and the historic Christian tradition.

Glossary of Terms

Abraham: In Judaism and Christianity, the first man to whom the true God revealed himself after humanity had rejected and forgotten God. Israel was the name of the grandson of Abraham.

Anabaptist: Related to or an adherent of Anabaptism, a branch of Protestantism that largely rejected any concept of law and ritual in religion. Anabaptists received their name (literally “re-baptizers”) because they would re-baptize adults who had been baptized as infants in the belief that only adults could experience the inner conversion of which baptism was only the outward sign. Some varieties of Anabaptism gave rise to large, violent rebellions such as the Peasant Revolt and the Kingdom of Muenster. Other Anabaptists were much more peaceful, focusing on community life and faithfulness to the ideals of the Gospel in one’s personal conduct. Some contemporary descendants of the latter group are the Amish and the Mennonites.

anthropological: related to anthropology, the study or theory of human beings.

antinomianism: The rejection of law (“nomos” is Greek for “law”). Many Christians might be called antinomian because they interpret Paul of Tarsus’s Letter to the Romans to say that Christians do not need law because they have the gift of God’s own life (grace) to guide them. Other Christians interpret the Letter to the Romans to say that Christians have no need only of the sacrificial rituals and minor legal decrees prescribed in the Law of Moses, whereas the Ten Commandments of the Law of Moses remain in force. See also LAW OF MOSES, ROM.

Aristotelian philosophy: The school of philosophy founded on the thought of Aristotle, the fourth-century-B.C. Greek philosopher and disciple of Plato. Much of Aristotle’s ethical thinking is foundational for the natural law ethical tradition. See Michael Pakaluk’s essay on natural law in the thought of Aristotle.

Augsburg Confession, The: The earliest summary of the beliefs of the followers of Martin Luther; it was written with significant input from Philip Melanchthon. It defended the Lutheran princes of Germany, addressing the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530 (the “diet” was the periodic gathering of all the princes in the Holy Roman Empire to discuss affairs of state). The Lutherans wanted to show that their beliefs were entirely compatible with Roman Catholicism and that they sought only to correct what they saw as abuses within the Catholic Church.

Christian: Of or belonging to Christianity, the group of all people who believe that Jesus of Nazareth, whom they call Christ (Greek for the “anointed” of God, the “Messiah” of the Jewish religion), and who was a Jewish resident of the Roman province of Palestine in the first century, was truly God and truly a human being, conceived and born of Mary of Nazareth through the special intervention of God—whom Christ called his Father—without the normal cooperation of a biological father. Christians further believe that Christ redeemed the human race from sin (that is, offense to God by committing evil) by his crucifixion and death; rose from the dead; ascended into heaven; gave his followers a share in God’s inner life by sending the Holy Spirit; will return at the end of time; and will bring his followers into eternal happiness with God in heaven in a resurrected existence like the one he now enjoys. Beyond these basic beliefs different groups of Christians vary in what they believe. See alsoPROTESTANTISM and ROMAN CATHOLIC.

conscience: The power that all human beings have to judge how to act morally in the particular situations in which they find themselves. Christians generally hold that conscience receives its knowledge of moral principles from innate knowledge of the law of nature and the help of special revelation from God, such as the Ten Commandments.

covenant: a solemn agreement between two parties in which the parties give their very selves to each other. Covenants play central roles in the Bible, such as the covenant that Moses mediated between God and the Israelites and the covenant that Christians believe Jesus of Nazareth mediated between God and the human race by his life, death, and resurrection.

divine sovereignty: God’s supreme rule over all of his creation. The Reformer John Calvin made special use of this phrase to emphasize that God commands all aspects of creation, even to the point that human beings do not have free will.

ecclesiastical: A term used by Christians meaning related to a church, that is, to a community of people who share a set of religious beliefs and way of life. From the Greek word “ecclesia” meaning “assembly” or “congregation.” In the Reformation Christians debated about what the nature of the church was as Jesus intended, especially whether it required the leadership of ordained bishops in union with the bishop of Rome (the pope) as had been the case in the Roman Catholic Church. See alsoPROTESTANTISM, ROMAN CATHOLIC.

Elector of Saxony, The: One of the more important princes of the confederation of German-speaking principalities known as the Holy Roman Empire. The Elector of Saxony during the time of Martin Luther was one of Luther’s most important political supporters. The prince of Saxony was called “Elector” because he was one of the seven princes who elected the new emperor upon the resignation or death of the previous emperor.

Gospel, The: The message of the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. Literally “good news” or “good message.” Also any of the four books of the Bible that contain accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus, attributed to two of Jesus’ Apostles (Matthew and John) and two close disciples of the Apostles (Luke and Mark).

human depravity: The wickedness of humanity on account of sin. The Reformer John Calvin made special use of this phrase to teach that sin so ravaged man that there is almost nothing good in him, even though the image of God in man and his conscience are not totally destroyed. Because of his depravity, man is utterly dependent on God. In this view God’s mercy in saving human beings is magnified because of how undeserving and weak human beings are.

justification: The process of being made just or righteous. In Christian theology, to be justified is to be forgiven of one’s sins by God, so as to be acceptable to God, to live in his presence more deeply in this life, and to enter heaven upon one’s death. For the Protestant Reformers, justification is “forensic,” that is, it is only God’s declaration that the believer is forgiven and has no necessary connection to any act of the believer or to the interior state of his soul. For Catholics, justification is only the first step—though a necessary and decisive one—in the process of sanctification, or becoming holy, in which the believer himself is interiorly transformed by grace (the gift of God). For Catholics justification occurs on both an eternal level (forgiveness of the punishment of hell) and on an earthly or “temporal” level. God’s grace alone can forgive the eternal punishment due to sin—hell—but there still remain non-eternal aspects to sin (such as the tendency to sin, to which sinful acts give rise) that can only be forgiven if the believer—cooperating with grace—also engages in virtuous acts of love of God, love of one’s neighbor, and self-denial. If one dies and has received forgiveness from hell but not from the temporal punishment of sins, Catholics believe that one’s soul must spend a finite time in a state called Purgatory before being admitted to the state of eternal bliss with God called Heaven.

Law of Love, The: A combination of two elements of the Law of Moses that, according to Jesus of Nazareth, summarize that whole Law: to love God with all one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. See also LAW OF MOSES.

Law of Moses, The: The set of commands that the religions of Judaism and Christianity believe that God gave to the Israelites through inspirations to a man named Moses. (The Israelites were the descendants of a nomad named Israel who lived at some time between 2000 and 1500 B.C. in the Fertile Crescent.) Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt around 1500 B.C. and formulated the laws that united the Israelites into a nation called Israel. Paramount among these commands are the so-called Ten Commandments that identify the ten gravest moral obligations, such as to worship only the true God, to honor one’s parents, not to kill, not to steal, not to commit adultery, not to lie, and not to wish to steal or commit adultery. Christian natural law thinkers generally hold that the Ten Commandments are in fact the natural law and are therefore knowable to reason regardless of whether one believes that the Ten Commandments come from God. See also ABRAHAM.

magisterial: Of the highest authority. The “magisterial Reformers” were the original theologians of Protestantism, and therefore the most authoritative, such as Martin Luther and John Calvin.

Mosaic Law: See LAW OF MOSES.

normativity: the state of being normative, that is, establishing a norm or standard.

paedagogical (OR pedagogical): related to the science of teaching, or having the quality of being instructive.

Pauline: Related to the teachings of Paul of Tarsus, one of the earliest preachers of Christianity. See also ROM.

Pelagian: Of or related to the followers of Pelagius, a late fourth- and early fifth-century monk originally from the British Isles. Pelagius denied that all human beings were born with the sin of the first man (Adam) on their souls. He said that some people never sin, and that sin does not wound the will and incline it to sin further. He further taught that human beings must earn forgiveness of their sins by some effort that comes entirely from themselves and not from God. The bishop Augustine of Hippo famously argued against Pelagius to say that all human beings are born with sin on their souls; that the help or “grace” of God that Christ’s death earned was necessary to forgive sin, heal the will, and perform any completely good deed; and that grace is entirely an unearned gift from God, even though in important respects man must still cooperate with grace in a way that reason can only partially understand. Augustine’s position was that which the Catholic Church adopted. Martin Luther and other Reformers thought that much of the practice and teaching of Catholicism in their day had become infected with Pelagianism. See also CHRISTIAN, PROTESTANTISM, and ROMAN CATHOLICISM.

Protestantism: The Christian religious movement begun by Martin Luther in 16th-century Germany and developed further by John Calvin and others during the period called the Reformation. Protestantism is often divided according to denominations that adhere to particular theologians’ understandings of Christian belief. Some of the larger variants include Lutheranism, Presbyterianism, and Anglicanism. Protestantism derives its name from those princes of the Holy Roman Empire that “protested” the decision of the other princes and the Emperor, Charles V, to condemn Luther. Despite Luther’s original intent merely to reform the excesses he perceived in the Catholicism of his day, the movement became separated from the Catholic Church in the greatest cleavage of European Christianity in history, which persists to this day. The subsequent division between Catholics and Protestants sparked more than a century of warfare among the European states that ended with the Peace of Westphalia. Although Protestant denominations often vary considerably in their beliefs, they generally share belief in the inerrancy of the Bible as the inspired Word of God; sola scriptura or the sufficiency of the Bible alone to convey God’s special revelation to mankind (without the need for any tradition or interpreting authority such as the pope and bishops of the Catholic Church); and sola fide or the sufficiency of faith in Jesus Christ to save people from their sins in all respects, such that the efforts of the believer to cooperate with God’s work of making him holy are not as important as they are thought to be in Catholicism. Some Protestants think, as Luther did, that human beings can do and think nothing that is true or good without God’s supernatural intervention. See also CHRISTIAN, ROMAN CATHOLIC.

providence: The word Christians use for God’s care for (literally “looking out for” in Latin) all of his creation, especially for those who follow his law.

Radical Reformers, The: Those who claimed to follow in the spirit of Martin Luther and the magisterial Reformers but who, unlike them, rejected infant baptism, participation in military service, holding public office, and the cooperation between church and state. They also often believed that the end of the world was imminent. The more infamous Radical Reformers encouraged disobedience to political authority. These created great political and social instability to the point of warfare, including a widespread uprising in Germany called the “Peasant Revolt” or “Peasants’ War” (1525–26, supported by Thomas Muentzer) and the secession of the city of Muenster as the independent “Kingdom of Muenster” (1534–35, ruled by John of Leiden). The Radical Reformers came under severe condemnation from Luther and others. The most prominent group among the Radical Reformers were the Anabaptists, who included not only the more violent movements but also peaceful groups like the Mennonites (led by Menno Simons). See also ANABAPTIST, MAGISTERIAL.

Reformation, The: The sixteenth-century European religious movement to reform Christianity. It produced the Christian denominations grouped under the heading Protestantism. See also PROTESTANTISM.

Reformers, The: The leaders of the Protestant Reformation. Primary among these are Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, John Calvin, and Huldreich Zwingli. See also PROTESTANTISM.

Rom.: Abbreviation for the Letter to the Romans of Paul, a Jew born in Tarsus in modern-day Turkey in the first century A.D. When he was about thirty he became a Christian in a sudden, dramatic conversion and led many of the first efforts to spread Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. He wrote letters to the churches he founded or intended to visit, in which he gave instructions on the dogmatic and moral teachings of Christianity. So foundational were his formulations of Christian belief in those letters that the early Christians preserved many of them, eventually judged them to have been specially inspired by God, and incorporated them into the Bible among the books written after the end of the earthly life of Jesus of Nazareth (these books are called the New Testament). Debates about the meaning of the Letter to the Romans were central to the theological controversies of the Reformation, owing perhaps to the fact that it is Paul’s longest and most systematic letter, and that it deals with such fundamental questions. The Letter to the Romans also contains one of the clearest assertions in the Bible that all human beings, whether they know the true God or not, know the fundamental precepts of the natural law, or as Paul calls it “the law written on the heart.”

Roman Catholic: Of or belonging to the Roman Catholic Church (often called simply the Catholic Church) made up of all Christians who obey the teaching of the bishop of Rome—the pope—as the successor of Peter and the vicar of Jesus Christ. They believe that Jesus of Nazareth appointed Peter as leader among the twelve men called “Apostles” whom he appointed to teach his message, govern those who believe in him, and administer seven rituals (called “sacraments”) to communicate regularly and directly to his followers the sharing in God’s own inner life—“grace”—that he obtained by his suffering, death, and resurrection. All bishops of the Catholic Church claim to be successors to the Apostles. In contrast with Protestants, Roman Catholics believe that the Bible is not sufficient as the vehicle of God’s special revelation to humanity but can only be understood fully when read in light of the teaching tradition of the Catholic bishops. Catholics also believe that, although the grace of faith comes from God alone, each individual can and must cooperate freely with that grace both to accept forgiveness from the eternal punishment due to sin (“hell”); to do penance for the lesser, “temporal” punishment of sin that does not send one to hell but must be forgiven before one can enter heaven; and to grow in charity, that is, the love of God and neighbor by a sharing in God’s own divine love. See also CHRISTIAN, PROTESTANTISM.

Smalkald Articles, The: A summary of the beliefs of the followers of Martin Luther that was drawn up in 1537 in preparation for a council of the Catholic Church that never materialized. It further clarified positions that the Lutherans had stated in the Augsburg Confession, drawing a stronger contrast between Lutheran views and those of the Catholic Church. See also AUGSBURG CONFESSION.

special revelation: A direct communication of truth from God to human beings by means beyond humans’ natural capacity of reasoning. The contents of sacred scriptures (such as the Bible) are an example of special revelation. Special revelation is correlated with “general revelation,” that is, the indirect knowledge of God that is available to all humanity through reflection on the order of the natural world, without the aid of direct inspirations.

Ten Commandments, The: See LAW OF MOSES.

theocratic: Having the qualities of a theocracy, that is, a regime ruled (or claiming to be ruled) more or less directly by God. Ancient Israel, especially before the establishment of its monarchy, was a theocracy, to which God communicated laws and judgments through the mediation of prophets such as Moses. See also LAW OF MOSES.

theological: related to the systematic study and explanation of God, especially through the study of texts inspired by God.

Thomist-Aristotelian: related to the schools of thought of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle or the medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas’s thought incorporates a great deal of the thought of Aristotle. See also ARISTOTELIAN PHILOSOPHY and the subtopics on this site about THOMAS AQUINAS and ARISTOTLE.

Wittenberg: The German city in which Martin Luther is considered to have begun the Reformation publicly in 1517 by posting a list of ninety-five theological declarations or “theses.” Luther had first gone to Wittenberg as an Augustinian monk to study at its university. He eventually joined the university’s faculty and became the head of the Augustinian order for the region.


[1] Among more theologically orthodox Protestants, opposition to the natural law arises from a cluster of related concerns—among them, (a) that natural-law thinking fails to take seriously the condition of human sin,  (b) that misguided trust is placed in the powers of human reason, which has been debilitated by the fall, (c) that the ethical norms as mirrored in the Old and New Testaments, as well as the means of fulfilling those norms, are distinct, (d) that natural-law theory  is insufficiently Christocentric or grace-centered, and (e) that, in consequence, it engenders a version of “works-righteousness” insofar as it detracts from the work of grace through Christ. “Orthodox” critics of the natural law remain skeptical out of the conviction that it is autonomous and somehow external to the center of theological ethics narrowly (which is to say, “Christianly”) construed.

[2] In the mid-to-late twentieth century one finds vehement opposition located in the thinking and writing of Karl Barth, Helmut Thielicke, Paul Lehmann, John Howard Yoder, and Stanley Hauerwas, to name but a few important examples.

[3] I speak here of major theological figures. One exception to this is the Lutheran theologian Carl Braaten. Happily, there are signs in the last decade and a half that Protestants are beginning to re-think their understanding of the natural law. Inter alia this is doubtless the fruit of meaningful ecumenical dialogue with Roman Catholics and the collapse of moral norms in the Western cultural context.

[4] For a contrast of contemporary and Reformation-era attitudes toward natural-law thinking, see Stephen J. Grabill, Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics (Emory University Studies in Law and Religion; Grand Rapids/Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 2006); J. Daryl Charles, Retrieving the Natural Law: A Return to Moral First Things (Critical Issues in Bioethics;  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), chap. 4; and idem, “Burying the Wrong Corpse: Protestants and the Natural Law,” in Jesse Covington, Brian McGraw, and Micah Watson, eds., Natural Law and Evangelical Political Thought (Lanham/Cambridge, UK: Lexington Books, 2013), chap. 1.

[5] Historiographer John T. McNeill has concluded, “There is no real discontinuity between the teaching of the Reformers and that of their predecessors with respect to the natural law” (“Natural Law in the Teaching of the Reformers,” Journal of Religion 26, no. 3 [1946]: 168).

[6] In asserting this I fully acknowledge the organic link between theology proper and ethics.

[7] From Luther’s standpoint, the accent on virtuous habits and patterns of behavior cannot be reconciled to grace and unmerited favor. There is simply no room in Luther’s thinking for any sort of anthropological optimism; the human will, unaided by grace, is unable to produce pure reason or the good. So, for example: “Thomas [Aquinas] wrote a great deal of heresy, and is responsible for the reign of Aristotle, the destroyer of godly doctrine” (Luther’s Works [hereafter LW] 32: 258; “Aristotle’s Physics is a completely useless subject for every age” (LW 48: 111); and, “Virtually the entire Ethics of Aristotle is the worst enemy of grace” (LW 31: 12). Cf. as well LW 31: 9-16, wherein Aristotle is described as a “deceiver.” Luther’s attacks on Aristotelian thought are most forcefully presented in “Disputation Against Scholastic Theology” (1517) and “Heidelberg Disputation” (1518). The reformer does, however, acknowledge Aristotle’s contribution to logic and rhetoric (LW 44: 201-2).

[8] Luther is representative of other Protestant reformers in making a threefold Pentateuchal distinction of ceremonial, judicial, and moral law.

[9] LW 47:89 (emphasis added). On this point, Luther wishes not to be misunderstood: “We will regard Moses as a teacher, but we will not regard him as our lawgiver—unless he agrees with both the New Testament and the natural law” (LW 35:165).

[10] LW 40:97.

[11] LW 40:97; cf. also LW 47: 88.

[12] LW 45:129.

[13] Philip Melanchthon, in The “Loci Communes” of Philip Melanchthon, ed. and trans. C. L. Hill (Boston: Meador, 1944), 112.

[14] LW 35: 168.

[15] LW 45:127.

[16] In his own day, Melanchthon was called “the teacher of Germany” (praeceptor Germaniae). See Karl Hartfelder, Philip Melanchthon als Praeceptor Germaniae (Monumente Germaniae Paedagogica 7; Berlin: A Hofmann, 1889). Hartfelder is citing a mid-16th-century authority who observes, “Da soll der Man Praeceptor Germaniae und Magister veritatisheissen” (“This man truly should be called Germany’s teacher and tutor”).

[17] This is the essence of the Augsburg Confession; see esp. Apology of the Augsburg Confession 12.

[18] On the lex naturae in Melanchthon’s thinking, see Merio Scattola, Das Naturrechtvordem Naturrecht: Zur Geschichte des lex naturae im sechzehnten Jahrhundert (Tübingen: Niemayer, 1999), 28-76.

[19] Karl Gottlieb Bretschneider and Heinrich Ernst Bindseil, eds., Philippi Melanchthonis Opera quae super sunt omnia (Corpus Reformatorum [hereafter CR] 28 vols.; Halle: n.p., 1834 [e-rep. 2013]), 13:150-52 and 186. Most of Melanchthon’s work was published in volumes 1–28 of the CR series and in successive editions of Loci Communes. For English translations of selected writings of Melanchthon, see Melanchthon: Selected Writings. C.L. Hill, ed. and trans. (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1962). On the link between nature and morality in Melanchthon, see esp. Sachiko Kusukawa, “Nature’s Regularity in Some Protestant Natural Philosophy Textbooks 1530–1630,” in Lorraine Daston and Michael Stolleis, eds., Natural Law and Laws of Nature in Early Modern Europe: Jurisprudence, Theology, Moral and Natural Philosophy (Surrey, UK/Burlington: Ashgate, 2008), 105–22.

[20] Consider, in this regard, Luther’s view of the Peasant Revolt.

[21] Harold J. Berman, Faith and Order: The Reconciliation of Law and Religion (Emery University Studies in Law and Religion; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1993), 175-76, believes that standard accounts of the Western legal tradition obscure the contribution of 16th-century Lutheran reformers such as Melanchthon, who remain “largely in the shadows of legal humanism and Machiavellian politics.”

[22] This forms the backbone of Melanchthon’s commentary in CR 21.

[23] The edition of The “Loci Communes” of Philip Melanchthon on which I am relying is that of C.L. Hill, ed. and tran.(Boston: Meador, 1944).

[24] Hereon see Robert Stupperich, ed., Melanchthons Werke in Auswahl (7 vols.; Gütersloh: Gerd Mohn, 1951–1975), 1:180.27–30.

[25] Berman, Faith and Order, 151–64, helpfully summarizes Melanchthon’s legal philosophy according to three realms: (1) the relationship of natural law to divine law (as revealed in the Ten Commandments), (2) the uses of natural law in civil society, and (3) the relationship of natural law to positive law.

[26] Wilhelm Dilthey, Weltanschauung und Analyse des Menschen seit Renaissance und Reformation (2nd ed.; Leipzig: B.G. Teubner, 1914), 193.

[27] While it is sharply debated among Reformed scholars precisely how important in Calvin’s writings the natural law is, that he affirmed it wholeheartedly is not in question.

[28] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion [hereafter Institutes], ed. John T. McNeill, tran. F.L. Battles (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006), 2.7.6–13.

[29] Institutes 2.2.13.

[30] Institutes 2.2.13.

[31] Susan Schreiner, “Calvin’s Use of Natural Law,” in Michael Cromartie, ed., A Preserving Grace: Protestants, Catholics and Natural Law (Washington, DC/Grand Rapids: Ethics and Public Policy Center/Eerdmans, 1997), 67–69, examines this metaphor in Calvin’s thinking.

[32] Institutes 2.2.22.

[33] Institutes 2.2.22.

[34] Calvin’s conviction of human depravity causes Michael Walzer to conclude mistakenly that Calvin “had sacrificed natural law” to “the radical Protestant theory of the Fall” (The Revolution of the Saints: A Study in the Origins of Radical Politics [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965], 40).

[35] Institutes 4.10.3.

[36] Institutes 2.8.1 and 2.2.22.

[37] Institutes 2.2.22.

[38] Institutes 1.15.4 and 2.2.12. Because of Calvin’s unswerving emphasis on human depravity, many observers are surprised to learn of his affirmation of the natural law. And while his Geneva experiment in practice raises many questions regarding his politics, such questions remain outside the scope of this essay.

[39] Hereon see Leonard J. Trinterud, “The Origins of Puritanism,” Church History 20 (1951): 37-57; Charles J. Butler, Religious Liberty and Covenant Theology (Philadelphia: Center for the Study of Federalism, 1980); J. Wayne Baker, Covenant and Community in the Thought of Heinrich Bullinger (Philadelphia: Center for the Study of Federalism, 1980); and Andries W.G. Raath and Simon de Freitas, “Calling and Resistance: Huldrych Zwingli’s (1484–1531) Political Theology and His Legacy of Resistance to Tyranny” Koers 66, no. 1 (2002): 45–76.

[40] The most comprehensive treatment of Zwingli’s belief system is W. Peter Stephens, The Theology of Huldrych Zwingli (Oxford: Clarendon, 1986).

[41] Melchior Schuler and Johannes Schulthess, ed., Huldreich Zwingli Werke (Zürich: Schulthess, 1828-1842), 4.243.

[42] Emil Egli, ed., Huldrych Zwinglis Sämtliche Werke (Leipzig: Heinsius, 1905– ), 2.320–33.

[43] Paul Avis, Beyond the Reformation?: Authority, Primacy and Unity in the Conciliar Tradition (London/New York: T. & T. Clark, 2006), 128.

[44] Here one might justifiably argue, as Justo L. González, that Zwingli established a closer connection between church and state than Luther did (A History of Christian Thought, Vol. III: From the Protestant Reformation to the Twentieth Century [Nashville: Abingdon, 1975], 70–85).

[45] Huldrych Zwinglis Sämtliche Werke 2.481–83.

[46] No one has pressed this argument with greater forcefulness than Harold J. Berman, Law and Revolution, II: The Impact of the Protestant Reformation on the Western Legal Tradition (Cambridge/London: Harvard University Press, 2003).