Writings: Unpublished

With and Against the Grain

Stanley Hauerwas and the Tumultuous Tale of Natural Law

Christian Scholars Conference, Malibu, CA

Author: John C. Nugent

06/01/11+ Share

Christians have long believed that since God is creator all humans may learn something about God by carefully studying his creation, and vice versa. Modernity, however, drove a wedge between God's self-revelation in Christ and the natural order that came into existence through Christ. This essay summarizes Stanley Hauerwas' account of natural law's promising early emergence, unfortunate modern decline, and hopeful Barthian recovery.

Page 1

In Retrieving the Natural Law, J. Daryl Charles depicts Stanley Hauerwas as an ideological pacifist who shuns mainstream Christian thinking and who opposes nature and grace, natural morality and Christ's lordship, creation and Christology.1 In rejecting natural law, according to Charles, Hauerwas forsakes "the grammar of a common moral discourse that Christians must utilize with unbelievers" and "by which the public square not only can but also must be preserved."2 Though Charles is right that Hauerwas does not share his insistence that a natural law framework constitutes a necessary condition for conversing with unbelievers and influencing public affairs, he is flat wrong that Hauerwas' critique of natural law lacks sustained interaction with historic natural-law advocates and that his approach fosters faulty dualisms between nature and grace, natural morality and Christ's lordship, or creation and Christology. It is not clear whether Charles' error lies in his failure to read enough of Hauerwas-he never, for instance, engages Hauerwas' published Gifford Lectures on natural law despite drawing upon

1 Daryl F. Charles, Retrieving the Natural Law: A Return to Moral First Things (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 141-145. For a condensed version of Charles' chapter on Hauerwas, Yoder, and other Protestant thinkers, see "Protestants and Natural Law," First Things (2006): 33-38.

2 Charles, Retrieving the Natural Law, 145 (original emphasis).

Page 2

fifty works that postdate it-or in his failure to understand Hauerwas.3 That his caricature of John Howard Yoder is equally spurious suggests that Charles read only enough of these thinkers to confirm his prior suspicions about their work and to locate them in his overall narrative about Protestant aversion to natural law.4 This is unfortunate because Charles purports to be advancing an ecumenical agenda, yet his presumption that Hauerwas and Yoder cannot see clearly, their minds befogged by their ideological pacifism, obfuscates the considerable common ground that he shares with them.

In reality, Hauerwas does not reject natural law for Christocentric reasons but seeks to introduce Jesus Christ more explicitly into the very kind of natural law discourse from which Christ has been excluded in modernity. In so doing, he does not presume to overturn Christian tradition but to stand on the shoulders of the early church fathers as well as Aquinas and Luther. True to form, Hauerwas does not offer a systematic explication of natural law principles. Instead, he tells the story of natural law's promising early emergence, unfortunate modern decline, and hopeful Barthian recovery. After sketching this story, I will summarize the key components of Hauerwas' position.

3 Stanley Hauerwas, With the Grain of the Universe: The Church's Witness and Natural Theology (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2001).

4 Charles repeatedly reminds his readers that Yoder was a "radical" Anabaptist who had no appreciation for church history prior to the Radical Reformation, who posited a radical ethical discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments (140, n. 113), and who held no place for natural law in Christian ethics (137-141). A careful reading of Yoder's work shows that Charles was wrong on all three accounts. I demonstrate Yoder's continuity approach to the Old and New Testament, creation and Christ, in "The Politics of YHWH: John Howard Yoder's Old Testament Narration and Its Implications for Social Ethics," Journal of Religious Ethics 39.1 (Mar 2011): 71-99, and in the forthcoming book The Politics of Yahweh (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011). For a focused study on Yoder's view of Christ and creation, see Branson Parler, "John Howard Yoder and the Politics of Creation," in Power and Practices: Engaging the Work of John Howard Yoder, eds. Jeremy M. Bergen and Anthony G. Siegrist, 65-81 (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2009).

Page 3

The Story of How Natural Law Became Anything but Natural

It is fitting to frame Hauerwas' view of natural law in story form because Hauerwas does so in his most extended treatment of natural law: With the Grain of the Universe, his 2001 Gifford Lectures.5 Yet the story I tell here is not merely a précis of Hauerwas' telling. Hauerwas began narrating his story in 1975 and has refined it in at least two essays since his Gifford lectures. Though he does not frame matters in 2007 precisely as he did in 1975, Hauerwas has been remarkably consistent in both his overall approach to natural law as well as his appropriation of classic natural law advocates.6

Hauerwas' story begins with the second century apologists.7 Rather than disparage them for seeking a common ground with unbelievers via natural law, he points out that the early Christians sought this common ground as those firmly located within the Christian position. Because they believed that the God who redeemed them also created the world, they expected humanistic insights to align with the truth they came to know in Christ. Thus, they represent a version of natural law that Hauerwas can affirm - namely, one that does not assume that what is natural is incompatible with particular Christian convictions, as modern apologists later do.

Hauerwas' story continues with the medieval era during which natural law thinking was developed more systematically. He makes several observations about this development, the first of which is basic to the rest. In Hauerwas' words, "natural law as a systematic idea was

5 Hauerwas, With the Grain, 38-39.

6 Several works in which Hauerwas engage the subject of natural law or natural theology include in Against the Nations: War and Survival in a Liberal Society (San Francisco, CA: Harper and Row, 1985), 23-50; In Good Company: The Church as Polis (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995), 91-108 and143-149; Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983), 51-64, 99-100, 119-120; Performing Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2004), 111-134; The State of the University: Academic Knowledge and the Knowledge of God (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 166-67; Sanctify Them in Truth: Holiness Exemplified (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998), 37-59; Truthfulness and Tragedy: Further Investigations into Christian Ethics, with Richard Bondi and David B. Burrell (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1977); and With the Grain of the Universe.

7 Against the Nations, 24.

Page 4

developed in and for the Roman imperium and then for 'Christendom.'"8 Medieval natural lawyers were not developing a neutral natural ethics that would make Christian claims intelligible or acceptable to nonbelievers. Since the Roman Empire had become the Holy Roman Empire, they were theologizing for a believing community and they were doing so from Christian presuppositions. They believed that the world was created by the God of Israel, and thus the God of the church, so they assumed it would bear the marks of its creator and that these marks would be discernible even without special revelation.9 To the extent that they theologized from within the faith and for the faithful, they were not creating but "codifying a particular moral tradition."10 As such, the original Catholic natural law ethic was only intelligible within a social order whose practices had been shaped by Catholic habits.11

8 Peaceable Kingdom, 51.

9 Peaceable Kingdom, 51.

10 Peaceable Kingdom, 51.

11 In Good Company, 96.

Page 5

Thomas Aquinas serves as Hauerwas' medieval theologian par excellence as well as his most important link to the historic Christian tradition. Since another paper in this session focuses on Aquinas' thought, here I simply list several aspects of his natural theology that Hauerwas draws upon to support his own view:

  1. Belief in God and knowledge of the world mutually illumine one another.12
  2. Natural theology cannot be divorced from specific claims about God's nature.13
    The Five Ways are not "proofs" to convince unbelievers that God exists, but means by which believers in hindsight can recognize creation's alignment with what they know about
  3. God, as evident in the coda that accompanies the Five Ways: "and this everyone understands to be God."14
  4. Not all moral truths can be known without the transformation of the ethical agent, which is made possible in part by the gift of the Holy Spirit and the shared commitment of the body of Christ.15
  5. The second table of the Decalogue, which Aquinas associates with natural law, cannot be separated from the first table, such that one cannot understand
  6. commandments 2-10 if one does not comprehend the first commandment.16
  7. Natural law is an exegetical principle necessary for reading of the Old Testament insofar as it helps us distinguish between laws that are pertinent for Christians and laws that were only meant for Israel prior to the messianic age.17
  8. Natural law helps humans understand that when confronted by God's law we always discover we are sinners.18
  9. Creaturely existence provides such inadequate knowledge of the creator that he had to come in the flesh and be known through himself.19
  10. An accurate account of how things are in this world requires a first cause and a last end, the latter of which is Jesus.20

12 With the Grain, 26.

13 Performing the Faith, 111-12.

14 Performing the Faith, 112, 118; Sanctify Them in Truth, 41-42.

15 Performing the Faith, 127; With the Grain, 50-61; In Good Company, 96; Sanctify Them in Truth, 44, 57.

16 Sanctify Them in Truth, 43-44, 54.

17 In Good Company, 96; State of the University, 166, n. 6; and Truthfulness and Tragedy, 61.

18 In Good Company, 96.

19 Sanctify Them in Truth, 42.

20 Sanctify Them in Truth, 41-42; and Truthfulness and Tragedy, 61.

Page 6

In sum, according to Hauerwas, Thomas Aquinas' natural theology was theologically disciplined, epistemologically astute, ethically integrated, exegetically grounded, and Christologically ordered. Aquinas therefore represents a high point in Hauerwas' story of natural theology.

Hauerwas finds similar sentiments in Martin Luther. Albeit in ways quite different from Aquinas, Luther also insists upon the interconnectedness of the first and second tables of the Decalogue and thus the interconnectedness of theology and natural law and the complementarity of knowledge of God and knowledge of humanity.21 Yet the fissure within Christendom that resulted from Luther's reforms eventually contributed to natural law's decline. In shattering the theopolitical unity of the Holy Roman Empire, Protestantism brought pluralism, which in turn fueled the wars of religion that ravaged Europe.22 After it became apparent that Christians could not agree about theological claims, it was assumed that a shared public ethics would have to be derived from a source less theologically freighted than special revelation. Rather than turn public morality completely over to "secular" reasoning, the conversation turned decisively toward a version of natural law that was still believed to be rooted in the nature and will of the creator, but was nonetheless loosened considerably from its theological moorings. Since the European world that made this transition remained firmly ensconced in Christendom, the ethical conclusions of natural law remained largely congruent with the medieval consensus, albeit sanitized somewhat of theological and, in particular, Christological language.

The Christendom consensus would not last indefinitely. Scientific developments that occasioned the Enlightenment began driving a sharp wedge between reason and revelation.

21 Sanctify Them in Truth, 44, 54.

22 With the Grain, 31.

Page 7

The more science could account for the facts of nature, the fewer gaps remained for theology to fill. It was not long before science came to occupy a privileged position over theology as it was alleged to have falsified what were previously core theological convictions. After Darwinism furnished a compelling counter-narrative, the rationalists severed nature from theology altogether, and natural law advocates were forced to choose sides. Theologians who wished to participate in public conversations about the common good would have to strip their position of specifically Christian terms and reframe it in language befitting a generic noninterventionist creator god. Such reframing, for Hauerwas, precipitated the low point of natural theology.23

This nadir of natural theology manifests itself in at least three ways that Hauerwas laments.24 In modern ethics it replaces special revelation as the ground of moral deliberation, thereby resulting in a minimalistic ethic. In modern apologetics it serves to legitimate and prove God's existence, thereby erasing the infinite qualitative distinction between humans and God.25 In modern theology it serves as necessary prolegomena for making theological claims intelligible, thereby subordinating theology to anthropology. Yet why would modern thinkers intentionally forsake theological convictions once deemed essential to Christian orthodoxy? Hauerwas suspects that power politics were involved. Natural theology, he suggests, was one of dying Christendom's many desperate attempts to maintain not only its intelligibility but also its power in liberal social orders.26

23 Hauerwas often used Immanuel Kant to represent this problematic modern orientation. See, for example, With the Grain, 37-38; and with Samuel Wells, "Why Christian Ethics Was Invented," in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, eds. Hauerwas and Wells, 28-38 (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), although the latter does not focus explicitly upon natural law.

24 Against the Nations, 24-25; Peaceable Kingdom, 55, 60-61; With the Grain, 31-38.

25 Performing Faith, 115-20.

26 With the Grain, 216.

Page 8

The historic natural law tradition was not Hauerwas' enemy as Charles assumes; modern liberalism was. Unlike the early apologists, Aquinas, and Luther, liberals assumed the vantage point of unbelievers and divested faith of particular aspects that they thought would offend skeptical moderns. The consequences were devastating not only for theology, which was rendered superfluous in light of the fully functioning natural law, but also for ecclesiology. When Christian convictions are diluted so that the world will listen, the church falters in its mission to proclaim and embody the theo-political ethics that God commissioned it to show and teach the world.27 What is worse, the supposition that "natural law" is natural to everyone can lead to coercion and violence because "everyone should know better" by virtue of their shared natural endowments.28

History has taught us, however, that our sense of what is natural is socially constructed. American Catholics learned this the hard way.29 What seemed natural to European believers was not so natural to Americans. Roman Catholics who resettled in the United States were surprised to learn that their "natural" convictions on topics like abortion were no longer self-evident to everyone. In order to maintain their distinct "natural" convictions, they needed to form distinct educational institutions to instill them in future generations.30 Though Reinhold Niebuhr criticizes the Roman Church's attempt to absolutize the relative, he only succeeded in creating a new brand of natural law.31 By reducing Jesus' ethic to an unachievable ideal this side of the eschaton (over against utopian social gospel advocates), he made original sin the cornerstone of

27 Peaceable Kingdom, 99-100.

28Peaceable Kingdom, 60-61.

29 In Good Company, 96-108.

30 In Good Company, 97.

31 Against the Nations, 30-33; With the Grain, 130-131.

Page 9

his account of nature. Though post-Darwinian Christians may not be able to convince the world that God exists, there is ample evidence that sin exists. Niebuhr therefore argued for God's existence from the conspicuous presence of sin and then rendered relative justice the norm in a fallen world. In moving from anthropology to theology in this way, Niebuhr only succeeded in breeding a new strain of natural law.

Yet Hauerwas' story does not end there. In his account, Karl Barth--arguably natural theology's most ardent despiser--furnishes necessary resources for its rehabilitation.32 Barth's accomplishment is threefold: he broke liberalism's stranglehold on theology, he renewed the primacy of special revelation, and he centered divine revelation on Jesus. In so doing, he recovered what was right in classical expressions of natural law and he pressed their implications further, albeit in ways that stood in fundamental continuity with their premises. If Christ is the beginning and the end of all creation, then the way of Christ should be more explicitly integrated into deliberations about what is natural. God's kingdom as proclaimed and embodied most completely in Jesus is thus the definitive natural standard. Yet the world of Jesus' day rejected his vision of the natural, and he foretold that the world will reject his followers, too. What is natural to believers in Christ will continue to seem unnatural and to be rationally contestable to those who lack regeneration, the Holy Spirit, Scripture, and the support of the faith community. So if the natural is to be seen in this world, it will have to be through the witness of the church. Those who get it must live it, so the world may learn that it has been seduced by counterfeit visions of naturalness. Yet if Christ's way is indeed natural, then it cannot be forced upon unbelievers lest the means subvert the ends; it must be received as it was given--a gift that can be accepted or

32 With the Grain, 141-171.

Page 10

rejected. Because Christians believe that the way of Christ really is the way things are--that it really does align with the grain of the universe--they believe they will always have something in common with unbelievers. That something need not be evacuated of Christology because the world that all people share in common is the world that came into existence through Christ, continues to be held together by him, and is groaning to be fulfilled in him. It is precisely Christ in his people that best connects them with the world that all humans inhabit. Though Barth, like Aquinas, did not push all of his insights to their logical conclusions, he nonetheless made it possible for later generations to do so.

Hauerwas' story ends with the believing community in possession of the legacy of Christ having been tasked to bear witness to the real world it has come to know through him. The peaceable witness of persons like Dorothy Day, John Paul II, and John Howard Yoder--to the extent that they challenged modern presumptions that relegate God to the private sphere and to the extent that their lives and works are unintelligible when abstracted from their ecclesial contexts--provides evidence that this community is not a utopian ideal, but an undeniable reality.33 "Moreover," in Hauerwas' words, "such a church must exist if indeed the cross and not the sword reveals to us the very grain of the universe."34

33 With the Grain, 217.

34 With the Grain, 230.

Page 11


Hauerwas' view of natural law may be summarized in terms of four points.

  1. Natural theology need not be abandoned altogether; it need only be grounded in a full doctrine of God.35 It must therefore be Christocentrically ordered, which means that all dualisms between nature/grace, creation/redemption, reason/revelation are theologically problematic.36 It is the modern project of grounding theology and ethics in a vision of the "natural" divorced from Christ the creator that needs to be abandoned.
  2. A Christocentrically-ordered natural theology is necessarily an ecclesiologically-ordered natural theology.37 This is so because Christ's way is now materially embodied in the church and because one's ability to discern what is natural is contingent upon one's formation in a community that is capable of embodying the natural--a community that is ordered according to nature's basis and telos, which is Christ.38
  3. It is epistemologically problematic to ground theology, ethics, or witness in a purportedly universal "natural law."39 What has long been deemed universal or rational has been exposed as local, particular, tradition-dependent, and communally forged. This is no cause for despair since secular philosophers agree that theology is not alone in lacking a neutral starting point; all worldviews are so constrained. We should therefore embrace what we can do, which is to begin in the middle of the Christian narrative in which the creator God is redeeming this world throughout his son and his people.40
  4. Because what has been revealed in Jesus to be natural stands in tension with much of what seems "natural" to humans, Christians who desire to impact the world on the basis of natural law must bear faithful witness to him.41 Since the way of Christ is the way the world really is, believers possess sufficient overlapping convictions with unbelievers to warrant dialogue. Yet this overlap can only serve as a beginning point, because faith in God and formation according to his will is required to fully discern what is natural.

Hauerwas' discussion of natural law is not, as Charles assumes, stuck at the impasse of "to do" or "not to do";42 it is more interested in doing natural law one way rather than another way. Though his preferred way is Christologically centered, Hauerwas did not entirely ignores the anthropological end of the conversation. His historical narrative says much about human experience over time: what was once thought natural is no longer; what one world discerns as "natural" another does not; what is deemed natural is connected to formation within communities according to traditions. Such "natural" insights along with God's most definitive self-revelation in Christ can no longer be ignored in the name of natural theology.

35 Performing the Faith, 111-12.

36 Peaceable Kingdom, 57.

37 Truthfulness and Tragedy, 214-15, n.5.

38 Performing the Faith, 127-28.

39 State of the University, 167.

40 Peaceable Kingdom, 62; Truthfulness and Tragedy, 69-70.

41 Performing the Faith, 116.

42 State of the University, 167.