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August Lang: A Reformed Look at the Reformers

In 1909 the Princeton Theological Review published four studies on Calvin and the Reformation. The authors were B. B. Warfield, Herman Bavinck, August Lang, and Emile Doumerge, a fine company of Reformed scholars. These essays have been reprinted in the book, Calvin and the Reformation (Baker, 1980). Lang's essay, "The Reformation and Natural Law," helps us understand the views of the Reformers on the applicability of Biblical Law.

Lang poses an important question at the outset:

How is the modern spirit, which, since the seventeenth century . . . has been unfolding itself with ever-increasing vigor, related to the Gospel of the Reformation? How could the age of the Reformation with its conflicts of faith be followed so suddenly by an age whose views about historical criticism and natural science, about politics and social life, are in part directly opposed to the Reformation conception of the world? What forces of the Gospel had a part in the development of the new way of thinking? What other, unevangelical, tendencies intruded themselves, and therefore, because they arose, for example, in Catholicism (and hence in false belief), or in an unbelieving and therefore pernicious development of civilization, must be combatted and eliminated? Or perhaps the Gospel of the Reformation is no longer judge over modern progress? Perhaps it is rather the latter that shall decide how much of the former is still tenable and fit for use?

To these questions, which, although they concern the systematic theologian as much as the historian, are primarily historical questions, I desire to make a slight contribution by examining the relation between the Reformation an(I Natural Law. . . . For not only have the laws of the evangelical Church itself been influenced thereby, both in the collegial law of the eighteenth century and also, though not so strongly, in the modern presbyterial-synodical constitutions; but especially all the political reversals up to the French Revolution are most intimately connected with the natural-law theories. . . . This itself is sufficient to show that natural law was more than a mere political and legal system; it became also the starting-point for "natural theology," the broad religious basis of the religion of the "Enlightenment .

How could this natural law spring up on the ground of the Reformation take such deep root and put forth such wide-spreading branches? My endeavor is only to study the beginnings of natural law on Protestant ground (which in many ways were interwoven with theological points of view) , and . . .to show from the origin of the natural law of the "Enlightenment," how far that movement was influenced whether positively or negatively by the ideas and motives of the Reformation. (pp. 57-59)

Natural Law

What is "Natural Law"? Webster's defines it as "rules of conduct supposedly inherent in the relations between human beings and discoverable by reason; law based upon man's innate moral sense." Many Christians have seen "natural law" in Romans 1 and 2, where it is said that every man knows what is right and wrong, but suppresses the truth in unrighteousness. Natural law supporters refer to man's moral conscience, but overlook his suppression of this truth; they do not fully account for the sinful nature of man when they say that man can construct rules of conduct without reference to God's Word, the Bible.

Lang begins with Melanchthon (pp. 59ff.):

and Natural Law

First of all, there can be no doubt that natural law received at one point in the Reformation theology itself, if not a formal treatment, at least an organic insertion into the general body of its dogmatico-ethical system, namely, in Melanchthon (p. 59)

By baptizing humanistic theories of natural law, Melanchthon opened the door for the autonomous Humanistic State. Melanchthon provided some limitations on the power of man's mind to construct law,

but the disposition of the Reformer becomes much more favorable in the editions of the Loci subsequent to 1535, after he had turned aside towards synergism. (p. 60)

Strict application of the law Word of Cod as inscripturated in the Bible has little place in Melanchthon's thought. Indeed, "The Decalogue has rather merely the function of elucidating and expounding the law of nature"! (p. 60)

The estimate placed upon the law of nature receives further light . . .when it is observed that Melanchthon regards the natural moral law in general as the most valuable product of human reason, indeed as the highest achievement of philosophical thought. (p. 61-62)

[I]n the equation between divine and natural law the point was given, where, in the orthodox system which was being formed, secular science, philosophy, law and the like could come into organic connection with the purely theological principles derived from the Gospel. Accordingly, Lutheran orthodoxy gives to the dogmatics and ethics that are derived from Revelation a substructure of natural sciences and arts. (p. 62)

Lang cites Troltsch, who calls this a "compromise" between Christianity and "the autonomous reason that was . . . incarnate in the productions of antiquity. . . ." Lang says it was nevertheless "entirely unfruitful" (p. 62). This would certainly be our appraisal of most "systematized" theology which pays homage to the wisdom of man, but neglects the Law of Cod.

Luther and Natural Law

His only quarrel with the [Anabaptists] is that they apply the letter of Scripture to the affairs of the state and of society as a rigid law . . . without recognition of the distinction between the Gospel and legal institutions.
Natural law is for him, a familiar and recognized conception. . . .

But if the natural-law theories could appeal to Melanchthon as their patron, is the same true for the other Reformers as well? For Luther, this is affirmed by the Paris theologian Eugene Ehrhardt. . . . It is a fact that Luther often speaks of natural law or the law of nature, and Ehrhardt . . . believes he has discovered that the conception in Luther also has had its roots in fundamental principles of his theology. (p. 63)

Lange then gives a lengthy list of the different ways natural law appears in Luther's thought, which we need not examine here.

Natural law thinking is particularly (if not painfully) evident in Luther's doctrine of the State. Says Lang of Luther's view, "By virtue of the universal priesthood, the civil authority has the right of reformation." (p. 64). The reasoning here (from I Peter 2:9?) is obscure, at best.

It has the right to abolish all abuses that have established themselves in the "Christian body," that is, in state and Church, in case the ecclesiastical authority does not itself make the first move. In correspondence with this positive estimate of the functions of the state, the direction of Church affairs under the new conditions came later, in the evangelical territories, with at least the permission of the Reformer, into the hands of the princes and magistrates. (p. 64)

Luther's division of society into the "two kingdoms" whereby Christians are in one Kingdom and all others are under the second (the State), provides a contrasting negative view of the State. Christians obey from the heart, pagans by the whip.

When such a negative view is held of legal institutions, the Scripture cannot of course be the source of their authority. A theologian must teach simply belief in the Lord Christ, and not meddle with secular affairs. "God has subjected and entrusted the civil government to the reason, because that government has to control not the soul's salvation nor eternal goods, but only bodily and temporal possessions." (p. 65) Now Ehrhardt calls up that passage from the treatise (of Luther) Von weitlicher Obrigkeit, in which natural law is identified with the reason, inasmuch as the reason is the "law-fountain" of all written law. (pp. 65-66)

From this Ehrhardt draws the conclusion that Luther saw in natural law or the law of reason the particular source of all legal institutions.44 Luther had to fight against a double opposition, Ehrhardt continues--against the Catholic theocracy, and against the theocracy of the letter of Scripture, which the fanatics sought to establish. On both sides, he defended the independence of the state--both over against ecclesiastical tutelage, and also in recognition of the fact that state and Gospel belonged to entirely separate spheres of life.

But this independence of the state and of society he secured by representing the foundation of their legal order to be natural law, which, in accordance with its origin in the primitive revelation, he could in a certain sense designate also as divine law. So the idea of natural law, Ehrhardt concludes, becomes a necessary middle term in the sequence of Luther's thought.45

Ehrhardt concludes that Luther indeed desired to make of his natural law a principle of social reform, but as soon as he tried to bring this conception into practical use, he had to borrow now from the Old and New Testaments, now from Roman law, from national traditions, indeed even from canon law.46 It is possible to go still further and to maintain that, aside from isolated utterances, Luther's method of reasoning in the practical concerns of national and social life is based throughout upon the ethical principles of Christianity and the Bible. He desires to deal with the twelve articles of the peasants, in accordance with their proposal, on the basis of "clear, open, undeniable sayings of Scripture",47 and so in all the disputed questions before him he treats the Christian-ethical principles derived from God's word as the decisive norm. His only quarrel with the fanatics is that they apply the letter of Scripture to the affairs of the state and of society as a rigid law without regard for historical development, without recognition of the distinction between the Gospel and legal institutions. Natural law is for him, it is true, a familiar and recognized conception;

Luther . . . assigned to the state and to law an independent, well grounded special province. But when it comes to developing that special province, Luther simply uses the ethical principles of the Christian revelation; or else he refers, as, for example, in a fine passage of his Auslegung de 101 Psalms, to "God's wonder-workers, whom He raises up now and then and whose mind and heart He endows with the power of separating the healthy law from the "diseased law," who either "change the law or so master it that the whole land thrives and blooms". Luther intimates here that the secular law, so far as it proves itself useful and excellent, is given to the peoples by wise rulers, "heroes of law," who create it by their genius, their endowment from above; accordingly, he would have provided the historical school of jurisprudence of the nineteenth century , before its appearance, with a convincing justification. (p. 68).

and Natural Law

Calvin rejects here the unqualified subordination of the state's law to the law of Moses.

Lang confirms the view of a minority of Theonomists that Calvin was no friend of Theonomy, but advanced a view of law that was based merely on the principle of "love," a law known naturally to all men. This is particularly evident

in the last chapter of the Institutes. Here the question under discussion is, Where does a Christian state secure the ethico-religious standard for its legislation? Even Calvin rejects here the unqualified subordination of the state's law to the law of Moses. He distinguishes in the revealed law between the ethical principles, which are summed up in the commandment of love to God and one's neighbor, and which for all peoples and all ages represent the eternal rule of righteousness, and the judicial, purely political regulations in the law of Moses (judiciorum forma, judiciariae constitutiones), which have merely the temporary importance for Israel of confirming love, the eternal law of God, as the foundation of legal enactments and procedure in the Jewish people. From the latter element of the revealed law, Calvin says the other peoples are free, but not from the former. (pp. 69-70)

Calvin would probably be outraged at the totalitarian qualities of the modern lawless State. Anti-theonomists in Reformed circles actually have no friend in Calvin. But by discarding the specifics of Biblical Law, Calvin handed the state a legislative carte blanche. Is any enactment permissible provided it is done in "love?" So it would seem.

There is no need to create a "straw man" in order to attack Calvin. Calvin simply illustrates the need for epistemological self-consciousness, by showing what happens when the camel is allowed to get his nose under the tent. In Calvin's thought, a "natural equity" is all that is required of the state in order to legislate outside the specifics of Biblical Law.

For although laws may be very differently constituted in detail (legis constitutio) according to different conditions and circumstances, yet in their ethical tendency they must all exhibit a natural equity (naturalis aequitas), as it is demanded by the conscience of man. But since the revealed divine moral law is nothing else than naturalis legis testimonium, the best expression of that natural aequitas, it contains standard, goal, and limits for the legislation of the peoples and nations. So the nations may indeed make their laws, Calvin says, without reference to Moses, as they think advantageous; only these laws must conform to the eternal fundamental law of love in God's commandment, so that though the form varies, the tendency shall remain the same. (p. 70)

And this natural equity is determined not by Biblical Law, but by the fallen conscience of man,

In an historical survey, Lang goes on to show how

it was precisely decided Calvinists who, first among the men of evangelical faith, and so early as the sixteenth century, not merely developed natural law theoretically, but at the same time, as political publicists, made it a weapon in the conflicts of the time. (p. 72)

It certainly would have been desirable for the political scholars of the Reformed faith to pattern their politics after the strict application of Biblical Law. But, as Lange notes, "[T]he abundant use of the Old Testament . . . was continually hindered by the great authority of the Biblical scholar of Geneva." (p. 76). And of course this kind of dependence upon the theological Systems of men rather than the word of God, a dependence all too common in Reformed circles, is precisely what this present essay is attempting to overturn.

Hooker, Grotius, and Locke are examined, and their dependence upon the "law of nature" rather than the law of God is illustrated. Natural law, says Lang,

pours itself like an irresistible stream into Reformed Protestantism, attains a decisive importance in its vital problems, becomes fundamental in the political constitutions produced by it, and in general enters as one of the most important factors into the spirit of the "Enlightenment" and of the entire modern period .

In these studies in Anabaptism we have many occasions to speak of the Reformers failure to break with Roman Catholic traditions, particularly in ecclesiology (the priesthood of elite believers). No less is this a problem in politics. Lang notes that "natural law is for the Reformation a part of tradition, more particularly an inheritance from the Catholicism of the Middle Ages." (p. 88)

We have also looked in some detail at the university education of the Reformers and its influence on their thinking. Lang has done the same:

Yet if natural law has its roots in mediaeval Catholicism, that only brings us to the chief question, How could doctrines that were Catholic in spirit be appropriated in Reformation territory at such an early time and with so little hesitation? . . . When Melanchthon assumed an attitude so much more favorable, and permitted the circle of ideas that is connected with natural law and the law of nature to become influential for his entire system, it is certain that his classical leanings contributed largely to that end. . . . For Melanchthon, no doubt academic tradition and the demands of education exercised the determining influence. lie saw how the doctrines of natural law were set forth in all schools, even by those who were neutral [!] in the conflict between the confessions, namely, by the Humanists; he found those doctrines taught in the works of ancient writers, like Cicero whom he prized so highly; he heard also how Luther spoke of natural law without opposing it, and even on occasion made use of it in his way -- all this no doubt combined to remove Melanchthon’s objections, which later, after he had become a synergist, did not weigh very heavily with him anyhow. (pp. 93-94)

Lang does not end with the education of the Reformers, however. He credits the "compulsion of circumstances" with the entrance and triumph of non-Biblical political and social theory. What does he mean by this phrase?

The Reformation at its very beginning found itself in the presence of problems and exigencies of indefinite range, first of all, conflicts of purely religious and theological character -- doctrinal, liturgical, and constitutional conflicts. And yet the problems which then appeared could be settled by reference to the fundamental religious principle of Protestantism, and on the whole were in fact settled in a truly Protestant way. pp. 94-95)

Can you recall the "fundamental religious principle of Protestantism? (Hint: it has something to do with the whole of Scripture serving as our sole source of authority!) But Lang goes on to mention problems and conflicts that did not receive a truly Scriptural answer from the Reformers, and this, he says, paved the way for the non-Scriptural theories that have dominated Re-formed thought in the "non-religious" areas of life.

Much more difficult and dangerous, however, was a second adjustment, which lay more on the periphery of religious truth and yet was no less necessary -- namely the adjustment to the general ethical, political, and social problems. . . . This adjustment, I say, was unavoidable, for if Protestantism, over against the mediaeval-Catholic world, involves a new world-view, then there must necessarily be a Protestant science of politics. . . . For such an adjustment, however, in the very nature of things, time is required; it cannot be accomplished by one man or by one generation. It was, indeed, a thankworthy undertaking, when Calvin in his Institutio did not entirely ignore politics, but the results were of such a kind that they did not give satisfaction even negatively, on the question of the obedience of subjects and the right of resistance, much less positively. But now the tasks and problems of culture came upon the young evangelical Church in a storm. But . . . the firm principles about the relation of the Reformation to the forces of culture -- to the state, science and art -- was lacking, and how could it be attained all at once in the midst of all the unrest of the time? Regarded in this way, we believe, the appearance of natural law becomes comprehensible. A doctrine of the state constructed on evangelical principles was not in existence. But such a doctrine was imperatively demanded by the need of the time. No wonder that in the lack of a conception of the state revised in the light of fundamental ideas, men had recourse to the political theory taught in the traditional jurisprudence, without heeding the fact that that theory had an origin foreign to the Reformation and involved tendencies and consequences which would lead away from the Reformation. These tendencies . . . could not fail gradually to dissipate and destroy the Reformation's basis of faith.

If it is true that the religious spirit of the Reformation in passing through Deism, the "Enlightenment," and Rationalism, was moving on a downward path, the reason for its deterioration was that the adjustment between the Reformation and culture was neither brought to a satisfactory conclusion nor even earnestly enough attempted. Nevertheless, we hope that such an adjustment may yet be accomplished; the better it succeeds, so much the more completely will the difficulties of our present religious situation disappear. (pp. 95-98)

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