WTM on Grabill on Protestant Natural Law Theories

My theological colleague WTM has written a fine book review of Stephen Grabill’s book Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics (Emory University Studies in Law and Religion; Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006). WTM’s review is published at the website of the Barth Center of Princeton Seminary, and it is available here.

One question which tweaked me, but which WTM did not explore in depth was the relation between goodness as such and the arbitrariness of God’s will. WTM summarizes Grabill on the medieval antecedents to protestant scholastic versions of natural law:

All these positions [realism, mediating realism and nominalism] ground natural law in God’s will: “what makes something ultimately obligatory is that God commands it” (58).

WTM notes that this is tied to the late medieval debate about potentia absoluta and potentia ordinata, but doesn’t explore the issue further. Not having read the book I can’t say how Grabill is using the term ‘realism’, for instance, but I would have expected a ‘realist’ position on natural law to ground the goodness of a moral act in the nature of goodness itself rather than in the arbitrarity of God’s will. The position that the only ultimate ground of the goodness of a moral action sounds to me like the nominalist position of Ockham.

Of course, I can’t raise this problem without referring to one of my favorite essays: “Abraham, Isaac and Euthyphro” by Norm Kretzmann.


One Response to WTM on Grabill on Protestant Natural Law Theories

  1. wtm says:


    Thanks for the engagement. I think what Grabill has in mind when he talks about even realists grounding things in God’s will is enlightened with the later talk, which I bring out (if I recall correctly), of natural law in relation to this world and / or all possible worlds. That is, I think Grabill means that even realists would say that the natural law as grounded in reality is part of nature, which is creative, which in the Christian tradition (as you well know) is understood as a free activity of God. That is to say, even for realists the natural law is grounded in the creative will of God.

    I could be wrong, but there is a stab at it. Grabill didn’t really get into the matter too broadly.

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