Evangelicalism and the Natural Law

By: Dale M. Coulter
Thursday, March 31st, 2011

As with others, I have recently been tracking a healthy conversation about the relationship between natural law and evangelicalism in the blogosphere. I say healthy because it strikes me as the correct way to dialog about such philosophical and theological divergences, especially in the face of the Rob Bell “storm.”

Evidently, Matthew Lee Anderson touched off the conversation with an article in Christianity Today. Jordan Ballor weighed in on the conversation by pointing out Protestantism’s focus on voluntarism, which I find helpful. This prompted some reflection at the First Things’ site by Joe Carter and Joseph Knippenberg. I like, in particular, Knippenberg’s comment about a division among evangelicals between those who are “together” with Catholics and those who talk incessantly about world views. Finally, I would note Vince Bacote’s weighing in on the matter by pointing out some possible connections with Abraham Kuyper.

Since this is largely a conversation among Reformed evangelicals and Catholics (with a sprinkling of Lutheran perspective here and there to add just the right flavor), let me offer the perspective of a Classical Pentecostal. 

Two Initial Thoughts

First, the conversation is mainly about how best to reconcile the heavy weights within each theological tradition, and thus it’s Calvin, Barth, or Kuyper vs. Thomas Aquinas and his most recent Catholic interpreters. All of these figures are immense theological minds and I would not argue with anyone who uses them as critical markers in a theological tradition upon which to build. My own penchant, however, is to trace out theological trajectories among a variety of figures, which I hope would complement the discussion of representative figures.

Second, I am one of those who is “together” with the Catholics insofar as I am a member of Evangelicals and Catholics Together and am also a medievalist who has a strong–did I say strong–appreciation for the Catholic tradition in all of its breadth and beauty. As a Classical Pentecostal, I find much that resonates within Catholicism to which some (by no means all) of my Reformed evangelical colleagues would respond, “of course, you would!”

My Take on the Issues Raised

Body/Soul dualism?

First, a quick note on Matthew Anderson’s calling evangelicals to task for their apparent body/soul dualism. As a Pentecostal, I would take issue with such a blanket assertion, and I might point to Jamie Smith’s body of work to point this out. Pentecostals have always embraced the body as a fundamental good both in their forms of embodied worship, which is quite expressive, and with their emphasis that Christ’s work on the cross extends to the healing of the human body, not simply the soul. This is why Pentecostals, generally speaking, do not embrace penal substitution, but Christus victor as the primary way to understand the atonement. Christ is indeed conquering sin and death as forces that assault the human person, body and soul.

Does human sinfulness prevent humans from grasping moral truths?

It might be helpful to begin with what I take to be fundamental agreement between the evangelical tradition, by which I primarily mean the revivalist tradition and its theological antecedents, and Catholicism, namely, that there is a givenness and a teleology to human nature. In other words, all humans persons do possess a human nature and this nature is designed by God with a particular end or purpose. Evangelicals have teased out this starting point in two distinct directions that have not always been held in tension.

On the one hand, in light of their understanding of human sinfulness, they have asserted that the Spirit can and does continue to make moral truths, scientific truths, in short, the truths emerging from the teleology of creation and human nature, available to individuals. This holds true for John Wesley who connected the workings of the Spirit in the human conscience to prevenient grace and Abraham Kuyper who, following Calvin, connected his understanding of the Reformed doctrine of common grace to the Spirit’s activity in creation. I would think that, on this view, even an Al Mohler might see the Spirit using natural-law arguments as a means of moral conversion.

On the other hand, evangelicals like John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards also followed the moral-sense tradition of a Francis Hutcheson with its focus on the affections as critical to the moral life. Thus, Edwards will conclude that human affections are an intrinsic part of human nature and are also central to the moral project. All humans can arrive at correct moral conclusions about particular actions by virtue of their affective connection to other humans and the world. The problem of sin only implies that humans cannot, on their own, develop comprehensive moral strategies. A figure no less than John Witherspoon, good Scottish Presbyterian that he was, embraced the moral-sense school of his fellow Scotsmen like Hutcheson and incorporated it into his lectures on moral philosophy at Princeton University. I might add that Old Princeton seminary was birthed out of reaction to Witherspoon’s approach, which I think accounts for part of the problem today, but I have sad this elsewhere.

So, there is a tension between the Spirit working on the human conscience to convince and the human conscience with its affective center being capable of arriving at moral truths. As long as evangelicals maintain this healthy tension, I really do not see much room for Catholics to disagree since it will kick the discussion back into Catholic debates over nature and supernature that French scholars like Henri de Lubac, et al. began.

Divergent psychologies here?

Anderson, Ballor, and Carter rightly point out that the issue of the effectiveness of natural-law arguments really points to a deeper debate on the psychology of the human person. Ballor says its about voluntarism, but this is his short-hand way of signifying the underlying issue of the relationship between intellect and will.

I think that evangelicals largely operate within what I will call a Ciceronian-Augustinian trajectory that runs from Augustine through twelfth-century thinkers like Bernard of Clairvaux and Hugh of St. Victor to Bonaventure, and then to Martin Bucer, and on. One could call this a voluntarism, but that classification really does not fit well. It would be better to say that this psychology privileges the role of affections as internal movements of emotion and desire that determine both what reason assents to and what the individual delights in. These internal affective movements are also connected to bodily states such that the human body does matter when it comes to making moral decision, which is why I would say healing of the body is a critical part of salvation. The affections are the integrating center of the human person because they bind the body to the soul. Bodily states inform states of mind because of human affectivity.

The verdicts of human reason, then, are always made in and through the affections because the internal motions of our thought life flow with the internal motions of emotion and desire. We simply cannot extract our imagination and its creative capacity from our affections, just ask the sociopath who has lost the emotional capacity to connect. While I cannot trace out all of the historical links here, they are present. My point here is that Thomas Aquinas is not the natural fit with this trajectory, and that evangelicals should look to other medieval interpreters of natural law before they try to wrestle with Thomas’ Aristotelianism.

So, can evangelicals embrace the natural law?

In short, yes they can, if they approach it through their own resources, which I have suggested point in three directions:

  • A body/soul unity from the holiness-pentecostal insistence that salvation encompasses the human body
  • A psychology that sees the affections as the integrating center of the human person that binds body and soul together into a unity and thus impacts human thinking
  • A healthy tension between the work of the Spirit upon the affections (the human heart) to bring about moral conversion and the givenness and purposefulness of human nature, which means that human affections can lead individuals to the right moral conclusions about particular moral options even if a comprehensive system is beyond reach

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Dale M. Coulter
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3 Responses to “Evangelicalism and the Natural Law”

  1. Dale,

    Thanks for engaging this. I hope to have more substantive thoughts later, but one quick point on the body/soul stuff: I totally agree with you that the Pentecostal tradition has a far more robust emphasis on the body than mainstream evangelicalism and that Jamie’s work is helpful in that regard. However, Pentecostal approaches to the body also seem to be pretty narrowly focused on healing and charismatic worship (the two points you note). I think those are great, but not sufficient for a rich account of the body. Jamie’s work is a refreshing change from this, but I see him more as exception than norm. I’d be happy to be wrong on that, though.

    I try to unpack some of this a bit more carefully in my forthcoming book on the body. Shoot me an email and I’ll try to get you a copy. : )


    • Matt,

      Thanks for engaging my post. Two points come to my mind. First, you are correct that Pentecostals have approached the subject of the body quite narrowly, but I would argue that Pentecostal praxis is more expansive than what Pentecostals themselves have always understood. This is the trajectory that Jamie plots out as well as my colleague Amos Yong in his work. Although I might point out that many folks don’t quite understand how the prosperity “gospel” is an intra-Pentecostal debate over human flourishing as requiring the material as well as the immaterial dimensions of the human person.

      To begin with Pentecostal praxis, secondly, would require that one put together four emphases: 1) the embodied nature of worship; 2) the connection between salvation and the human body; 3) holiness as affective transformation; 4) speaking in tongues as an embodied experience of affective transformation. When I bring these four emphases into conversation with the rest of Christian tradition, I find that holiness and Spirit baptism speak to affections as the integrating center that holds together body and soul, and healing of the body and embodied worship as implying that salvation concerns the flourishing of the totality of the individual.

      Thanks again, and I look forward to reading your further reflections.

  2. Monica Masiko says:

    Something to say about body/soul dualism:
    First, I am still my infancy regarding theological development. I am an MDiv student, 39 credits into a 90 credit degree. Perhaps some would entertain an observation of my thought development?
    Second, I became aware and challenged my embedded theology of body/soul dualism. I have found compelling reasons to bring the body back into focus, equal with the soul, when discussing salvation. For me, this comes in consideration of Christ’s bodily resurrection. This adds a broader vision of the eschaton. Whereas, in the past I had considered the abandonment of the body (and all of its pain, disease, aging, etc.) in the eschaton, I now consider the fact that Scripture is clear in its teaching that we can expect a bodily resurrection just as Christ did. I do not have to abandon the body altogether just to be free of pain and disease as promised in the eschaton.
    Third, I present this here, to those with whom I hardly feel adequate to dialogue, given the disparity in our educational levels, because I find it curious that eschatological considerations appear to be absent from the discussion. I would like to make it known that visions of the eschaton, combined with Scripture as the base, have enabled me to bring back together that which had previously been separated (body and soul.)