Elizabeth Anscombe on Protestantism and Divine Command Ethics

[I am skeptical about the claim she makes here, but I thought it was interesting. This is from Anscombe’s famous paper “Modern Moral Philosophy”.]

To have a law conception of ethics is to hold that what is needed for conformity with the virtues failure in which is the mark of being bad qua man (and not merely, say, qua craftsman or logician)—that what is needed for this is required by divine law. Naturally it is not possible to have such a conception unless you believe in God as a law-giver; like Jews, Stoics, and Christians. But if such a conception is dominant for many centuries, and then given up, it is a natural result that the concepts of ‘obligation,’ of being bound or required as by a law, should remain though they had lost their root; and if the word ‘ought’ has become invested in certain contexts with with the sense of ‘obligation’, it too will remain to be spoken with a special emphasis and a special feeling in these contexts.

It is as if the notion ‘criminal’ were to remain when criminial law and criminal courts had been abolished and forgotten. A Hume discovering this situation might conclude that there was a special sentiment, expressed by ‘criminal’, which alone gave the word its sense. So Hume discovered the situation in which the notion ‘obligation’ survived, and the word ‘ought’ was invested with that peculiar force having which it is said to be used in a ‘moral’ sense, but in which the belief in divine law had long since been abandoned: for it was substantially given up among Protestants at the time of the Reformation.* The situation, if I am right, was the interesting one of the survival of a concept outside the framework of thought that made it a really intelligible one.

*They did not deny the existence of divine law; but their most characteristic doctrine was that it was given, not to be obeyed, but to show man’s incapacity to obey it, even by grace; and this applied not merely to the ramified presecriptions of the Torah, but to the requirements of ‘natural divine law’. Cf. in this connection the decree of the council of Trent against the teaching that Christ was only to be trusted in as mediator, not obeyed as legislator.


2 Responses to Elizabeth Anscombe on Protestantism and Divine Command Ethics

  1. mliccione says:

    Elizabeth Anscombe was my first mother-in-law. I think I was almost unique among sons-in-law by in agreeing with her most of the time.

    The present passage is no exception. She is not asserting that Protestants disbelieve in divine law; her claim is that Protestants, as a class, do not believe that the content of such law specifies what it is to be good qua human. That is why Protestants don’t generally “do” natural law. Some think there is no such law; others think that, even if there is and we can know it, that tells us nothing of salvific significance.

    The Catholic Church professes otherwise. See CCC §1950 ff.

  2. scholasticus says:

    Mike, Ms. Anscombe’s argument seems to be tracing the genealogy of the decline of natural law thinking, and she is asserting that it was substantially given up about the time of the reformation. I’m skeptical, because Stephen Grabill has just written a book asserting pretty much the opposite–i.e. that Reformers such as Calvin and their immediate successors such as Vermigli and Turretin hold onto the idea of natural law–which would seem to indicate that it isn’t protestantism as such that is the problem.

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