Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Let's Not Overstate the Case

In the December 2006 issue of First Things journal (#168), J. Daryl Charles writes a stimulating article titled "Protestants and Natural Law." The thrust of the article is that, over the last few centuries, Protestants have lost a robust natural-law theology as it exists, for instance, in the Roman Catholic Church. With such a loss, Protestants lack any adequate basis for a moral apologetic or for contribution to civil society. To prove his thesis, Charles points to three Protestant theologian/ethicists who not only lack a positive natural-law theology, but actually denounce a role for natural law in Christian theology. His examples are Karl Barth, John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas. On the basis of his research, Charles makes claims like:

"[Protestants] are remarkably joined in their opposition to natural-law thinking."

"Many, Protestant Evangelicals in particular, presume that natural-law thinking fails to take seriously the condition of sin and places misguided trust in the powers of human reason debilitated by the Fall."

"Despite the cleavage between theological fundamentalists and progressives, objections to natural law have united most Protestants."

I was disturbed by Charles' general claims about Protestant objections to natural law, in spite of his initial caveats, for a number of reasons. First of all, during the more than 10 years I spent as a student in an Evangelical institution, I became adequately acquainted with natural-law theory and theology, and not primarily in negative categories. Second, after reading the article, I checked my primarily Evangelical library and easily found extended and very constructive discussions on natural-law theory and theology. And I would hazard a guess that the Evangelical theologian/ethicists that I checked out are at least as representative of the Protestant Evangelical community as are Charles' examples, if not more so. I have never heard of John Howard Yoder and, while recognizing that as a fault, it makes me think that he might not be as representative as Charles would like him to be. Combined with the spectrum of opinions that exist about the orthodoxy of both Barth and Hauerwas, or at least their continuity with general Protestant thought, these realities should give rise to significant skepticism about Charles' sample.

Norman Geisler, in the prolegomena to his 4-volume Systematic Theology, Carl F.H. Henry, throughout his 6-volume work, God, Revelation and Authority, and Scott Rae, in his introduction to ethics, Moral Choices, all give significant attention to natural-law theory and theology and the role it should have in thought, word and deed. A positive article on natural law is found in the very recent New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics, which was published by InterVarsity Press, an Evangelical publisher. This data simply does not align with Charles' negative portrayal of the place for natural law in Protestant thought.

But the purpose of my reflection is not to refute Charles' thesis or to defend the place of natural law in Protestant, namely Evangelical, thought. I want to use his example as a warning for all of us, especially myself. I think there is a genuine temptation for each of us to speak of things about which we know very little as if we knew a great deal about them. We may have read about some point of view or even a point of view as expressed by an actual proponent of it and make claims as though we were thoroughly acquainted with such a point of view. This is quite dangerous. Not only are we likely to speak falsely about the particular view, we may, depending on our company, lead others to think as falsely as we do. Another potential problem is that we will exaggerate our claim such that we attribute to a large group what is only the view of a portion, possibly a small portion, of the group. Please do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that Charles is not adequately acquainted with the development of natural law in Protestant thought. He is eminently more qualified to discuss the matter than I. Nor am I saying that we should never speak about anything until we know it thoroughly. My warning is that we should be honest in our conversations and careful in our speech so that we don't overstate our case, as I believe Charles has. Undoubtedly, some Protestants lack a proper theory and theology of natural law. But I think Charles has given into temptation when he says that many Protestants, especially Evangelicals, are remarkably united in opposition to natural law.

I know this warning may not sound particularly insightful or novel. It shouldn't. We should all be living this way. The problem is that we don't. I used to say a lot of things about Democrats because I didn't know very many. Now that all of my in-laws are Democrats, I don't say as much any more, or at least I don't speak as categorically. I want to close this entry with a very poor bit of advice that was once given to me by a pastor and give just the opposite. After a sermon that included a discussion of various world religions, I asked this pastor if he had read the Bhagavad-Gita, which I bought and was skimming after a trip to India. He said something like, "Eric, I don't read anything by unbelievers. I don't want to give time to the enemy. I read books by believers that tell me about unbelievers. That spares me a lot of effort." Don't do that. Rather, let us be diligent in our study, honest with our findings and careful in how we pass on that which we have had the privilege to learn. We may have to talk less and listen more but that may not be such a bad thing.


multisubj yb said...

I greatly appreciate you manner and method of thinking and expression.

Since you have skimmed Gita, you may be interested to see my translation and commentary of Bhagavad Gita. www.bhagavadgitayb.blogspot.com. You may also like to see some snippets from Ramayana. www.ramayanayb.blogspot.com

multisubj yb said...

If you wish to write any caustic comments and severe criticism, kindly write at my Ramayana Blog which I visit nearly everyday. I am working on it.