A fine article by Matthew Anderson of Mere Orthodoxy appearing at the Christianity Today site has touched off a fresh round of discussion about the relationship of natural law to Christian political engagement, particularly focusing on points of concord and discord between Roman Catholics and evangelicals. (I survey some of this discussion in a post yesterday at the Acton Institute PowerBlog. Robby George follows up with some additional thoughts on the relationship of revelation and reason here.)
What I want to highlight here is the critical place that particular figures play in how these discussions often work out. Joe Knippenberg rightly points to the critical place that Thomas Aquinas occupies in the discussion about natural law and the broader Christian tradition. With more contemporary concerns in mind we might wonder on whose side Thomas Aquinas might really be. In a brief volume Arvin Vos, for instance, compares the thought of Aquinas and Calvin on a number of points, and finds them to be in rather more agreement than we would typically expect given the identification of Thomas as the representative theologian for Roman Catholics and Calvin's place as doctor of the Reformed church.
In another essay assessing Martin Luther's polemic against the Schoolmen, and particularly those in the line of Thomas, David Steinmetz notes the limited utility and applicability of such polemic, particularly for broader judgments about the relationship between various traditions. "The story of Thomas Aquinas and Protestantism has yet to be written," he said, "and it is not identical with the story of Thomas and Luther."
Another theologian who has figured prominently in contemporary discussions about Protestantism, Thomas Aquinas, and natural law is Karl Barth. My colleague Stephen Grabill has referred to the post-war period of evangelical and broadly Protestant skepticism with regard to natural law as the time of "Barthian hegemony."
But today Vincent Bacote of Wheaton College has posted some reflections on his experience at a recent conference on evangelicals and natural law. These reflections are noteworthy for a number of reasons, not least of which is his emphasis on the importance of a figure like Abraham Kuyper going forward. He also notes that there was the "surprising suggestion that the later Barth may have been less resistant to the idea of natural law." If this is true, and I'm inclined to think it is, this suggestion has important implications for our assessment of Barth's earlier theology as well as the resulting hegemonic rejection of natural law among Barthians.
My own research project in this area relates to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and natural law, in which I argue that Bonhoeffer articulates a kind of natural law ethic. As Eric Metaxas puts it in the context of Bonhoeffer's time at a Bavarian Benedictine monastery at Ettal, Bonhoeffer's "long conversations with the abbot and other priests gave him a renewed appreciation for Catholicism and informed his writing of Ethics, especially the parts dealing with natural law, which was absent from Protestant theology and which absence he meant to correct."
If again it is true that Barth's theological development led him to become less hostile to natural law later in his career, and that Bonhoeffer developed a theological ethic manifested a kind of natural-law thinking, then a corrollary (which I will attempt to show in my research) is that Bonhoeffer might well have influenced Barth in this way. And in any case, to paraphrase Steinmetz on the question of Protestant appropriation of Thomas Aquinas, we might say that the story of Thomas and Protestantism has not yet been writtten, and this story is not identical with the story of Thomas and Barth.
Along these lines an upcoming event is worth noting, hosted by the Center for Barth Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary, "Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth: An Unofficial Protestant-Catholic Dialogue" (June 19-22).