Martin Luther’s Pragmatic Revision of Traditional Natural Law Theory

[1] In his 1535 Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, Martin Luther offers up the following set of judgments:

For albeit that all men have a certain natural knowledge implanted in their minds (Rom. ii. 14), whereby they naturally perceive that they ought to do unto others as they would have others do unto them (and this and other such opinions, which we call the natural law, are the foundation of human right and of all good works); yet notwithstanding man’s reason is so corrupt and blind through the malice of the devil, that it understands not this knowledge wherewith it is born; or else, being admonished by the Word of God, it understands it, and yet (such is the power of Satan) knowingly neglects and contemns it.1

As with so much of Luther’s writing on biblical texts, this passage is a rich porridge of assertions, qualifications and scoldings. In spite of the density of Luther’s comments here, one thing stands clear: Luther does believe in the existence of something called natural law. But which version of natural law does Luther accept and affirm, and what use does he make of the concept?
Martin Luther’s Pragmatic Revision of Traditional Natural Law Theory by Thomas D. Pearson
[2] Is Ernest Troeltsch right when he maintains that Luther held strongly to a primitive notion of natural law that “is at every point a crude, raw and aphoristic theory,” but that nonetheless advanced the idea of natural law into the modern period?2 Or is Karl Holl correct in insisting that “Luther, in fact, totally rejected the natural law concept” and that the Reformer contributes nothing to its historical development?3 Or perhaps John T. McNeill captures Luther’s understanding and use of natural law best when he says that “[Natural law] remains something of an alien in the republic of his [Luther’s] theology,” but that “natural law is determinative for Luther’s political thinking.”4 Finally, if we turn to the recent work of William Lazareth, we find the judgment that “Luther’s liberating conclusion is that Christians are bound only by God’s universal natural law, some of which, however, is also embodied in the Mosaic moral law… [f]or Christians [according to Luther], natural law can still regulatively demonstrate what love alone normatively motivates.”5 Is the collapsing of natural law into the principle of Christian love, as recommended by Lazareth, an accurate description of Luther’s position on the subject?

[3] What this mélange of different verdicts on Luther’s appropriation of the natural law tradition may reflect is that Luther himself had difficulty articulating a consistent account of natural law, a difficulty accented by Luther’s avoidance of natural law when he addresses strictly theological matters, and his loose deployment of natural law when dealing with matters of practical and political significance. This conclusion — that Luther treats natural law as a foundation for civil righteousness, but does not regard natural law as a topic suitable for theology — is what I would like to argue for, in a very preliminary and narrow manner, in this paper. A thorough investigation in support of this thesis is impossible in such a short essay, but I hope to indicate through an examination of a selection of Luther’s writings from a period in which he repeatedly invokes natural law that this conclusion is a sound one.

[4] If it is true that Luther freely adapts the natural law tradition for purposes of exhortation in practical and political matters, we should begin with an inspection of that tradition. So what does the natural law tradition, as it would have come down to Luther, look like? What are the specific claims of natural law as Luther would have encountered them? This tradition may be summarized in five brief statements.

There exists a moral law, objective in character, universal in scope and application, absolute in its authority.
This moral law is grounded in God’s gracious act of creation, is revealed in the natural order of things, and reflects the divine goodness of God.
This moral law may be expressed as a set of precepts that frame and guide all moral deliberation and action for human beings.
These precepts of the moral law are known to human beings through the exercise of natural reason, specifically through the instrument of conscience.
The natural law serves as the necessary and sufficient basis and standard for all human law, including all positive civil and international law.
[5] This standard account has its origins in pre-Christian social attitudes clearly extending at least as far back as the Greeks, and less clearly back to the Hebrew community. Augustine’s scattered references to natural law (especially in On the Trinity and his commentary on the Psalms) emphasize the epistemological dimension of natural law, in which knowledge of natural law is the result of divine illumination imparted through the rational nature of human beings. Augustine thereby contributes to the separation of natural law as a general revelation to all human beings from the Christian scriptures as a special revelation, a separation that Luther would later extend.

[6] Luther’s specific quarrel with the natural law tradition he inherited focuses on the fourth point above. Luther, as shown in the earlier quote from his commentary on Galatians, holds that nature and reason have been thoroughly and irredeemably distorted by the Fall, and thus nature and reason simply cannot function adequately to furnish reliable knowledge of what the natural law stipulates. Nature is in the possession of Satan, and reason is captive to concupiscence; neither can fulfill the epistemic requirements of the natural law. In his writings prior to 1521, Luther was willing to entertain the possibility that conscience might hold some epistemic and moral power, as taught by the majority of the scholastics. But following 1521, Luther progressively treats conscience in relational terms, and not as an epistemic faculty. When conscience is properly formed, by scripture and the promptings of the Holy Spirit, for instance, is it rightly related to God and enjoys an evangelical freedom; when it is not properly formed, the relationship of one’s conscience to God is rendered uncertain, and thus we have all the references to the “terrors of conscience” so prevalent in the Lutheran confessional writings. Those “terrors” are not the product of faulty knowledge, but of a bondage to the fear that our relationship with God is broken.

[7] So Luther does affirm natural law, but he denies that it can be apprehended by human beings in any dependable way. That makes it an unfit topic for theology, but makes it suitable for the uncertain realms of political and vocational life. Luther offers a succinct description of the task and method of theology in a lecture on the Fifty-first Psalm:

Knowledge of God and man is divine wisdom, and in the real sense theological. It is such knowledge of God and man as is related to the justifying God and to sinful man, so that in the real sense the subject of theology is guilty and lost man and the justifying and redeeming God. What is inquired into apart from this question and subject is error and vanity in theology.6

Theology “in the real sense” is about human beings coram Deo, human beings in their relationship with God. Anything else, including inquiry into the relationship of persons to one another in their social and political interactions, is “error and vanity in theology.” What accounts for this is the fact that human reason, and the natural law that is supplied by reason, is inadequate to discern the dynamics of this relationship between God and human beings. Reason may be suitable for many things in this life, including how to deploy natural law for pragmatically handling the ethical demands of public responsibility, but reason is not suitable for the tasks of theology. Natural law, therefore, is not properly a theological topic.

[8] As we have seen, although Luther does indeed directly mention natural law in a number of his writings, he does not employ any vestige of the traditional apparatus of classical natural law theory as it existed in the scholasticism of the high middle ages. Exactly how he employs natural law can be seen in those texts that most frequently appeal to this idea, the majority of which come from the period around 1525, when Luther was dealing with violence and public disorder connected with the uprising of the peasants, and with the efforts of radical reformers such as Karlstadt and Muntzer. For the purpose of showing Luther’s understanding of natural law, it is useful to reflect on his application of the concept in these various writings arising from circumstances where complex ethical and social justice issues were at stake. I will therefore focus on works written during the turbulent times surrounding the middle of the 1520s.

[9] Consider first Luther’s words in the Admonition to Peace from 1525, subtitled A Reply to the Twelve Articles of the Peasants in Swabia, where he reproaches the peasants for their bloody revolt against the political authorities.

Now you cannot deny that your rebellion proceeds in such a way that you make yourselves your own judges, and avenge yourselves, and are unwilling to suffer any wrong. That is contrary not only to Christian law and the Gospel, but also to natural law and all equity. Now, all this has been said concerning the common, divine and natural law which even heathen, Turks, and Jews have to keep, if there is to be any peace or order in the world. Even though you were to keep this whole law, you would do no better and no more than heathen and Turks. For not to be one’s own judge and avenger, but to leave this to the authorities and the rulers, makes no man a Christian; it is a thing that must eventually be done whether willingly or not. But because you are acting against this law, you see plainly that you are worse than heathen or Turks, to say nothing of the fact that you are not Christians. But what do you think that Christ will say to this? You bear His name, and call yourselves a “Christian assembly,” and yet you are so far from Christian, and your actions and lives are so horribly contrary to His law, that you are not worthy to be called even heathen or Turks, but are much worse than these, because you rage and struggle against the divine and natural law, which all the heathen keep.7

Luther here reproves the Swabian peasants for seeking to avenge themselves against their oppressors, accusing them of doing what is contrary to natural law and equity. Equity is a term originally employed by Aristotle that became an adjunct to discussions of natural law in the western tradition. An approximate meaning is “justice,” understood as giving to each one what is due to her. It specifies a judgment that must be made when precepts of the natural law have come into conflict, such that no immediate instruction from the natural law is clearly discernable. In these situations, a careful assessment of what is owed to each person in the situation should be made, as best as this can be impartially determined by one who is authorized to render such a verdict. So “prudential justice” is perhaps the closest English cognate.

[10] In this passage, Luther is indicting the peasants for attempting to usurp the place of the local ruler in the community, passing judgment on the ruler’s culpability when they are in no position to do so. To act as judges in the case of their own grievances is an affront to equity. In doing so, they also violate the “Christian law,” which for Luther is generally the law of love. But Luther does not rest his judgment of the Swabian peasants on this “Christian law.” He admonishes them on the basis of the natural law, which even the “heathen, Turks and the Jews” have to keep “if there is to be any peace or order in the world.” There are two critical points here. First, doing the right thing — even the morally right thing — does not identify a person as a Christian. Indeed, it seems that Luther would claim doing the right thing as defined by the natural law is something anybody could do. Following the precepts of the natural law is not authentically distinctive of Christian morality, and should not be pursued because it promises to achieve some particular Christian good. There is clearly a different spirit at work here in Luther from that of the previous Christina natural law tradition.

[11] Second, this passage underscores Luther’s conviction that the value of the natural law is fundamentally instrumental. Natural law ought to be observed “if there is to be any peace or order in the world.” It is not the case, Luther implies, that we should follow the precepts of the natural law because it is the way that each individual member of the human species can, in proper teleological fashion, realize the good for herself. Instead, it is the case that we should adhere to the natural law because it produces a salutary outcome for society. I can find nowhere in Luther’s writings an endorsement of the traditional notion that the value of natural law lies in the prospect that individual members of the human species can use reason to order their lives in accordance with the moral precepts of the natural law. On the contrary, Luther’s counsel to Christian individuals is to hear what God’s law demands of them, to repent of their sin, and to cling through faith to the promises of God in Christ. Natural law and equity have value for Luther primarily in order to accomplish a number of specific social purposes, such as maintaining public peace and order, so that justice may be secure. For Luther, these are not, strictly speaking, theological matters.

[12] Finally, Luther offers an argument in the midst of discussing the third of the twelve complaints of the Swabian peasants that demonstrates how far he has moved away from the traditional outlook of natural law theory. From the beginning, classical natural law theory held that all persons were equal on the basis of the “higher law,” and that natural justice required that civil law recognize the fundamental equality of each human being, regardless of the political consequences. Luther disagrees.

on the third article: “There shall be no serfs, for Christ has made all men free.” That is making Christian liberty an utterly carnal thing. Did not Abraham and other patriarchs and prophets have slaves? Read what St. Paul teaches about servants, who, at that time, were all slaves. Therefore this article is dead against the Gospel. It is a piece of robbery by which every man takes from his lord the body, which has become his lord’s property. For a slave can be a Christian, and have Christian liberty, in the same way that a prisoner or a sick man is a Christian, and yet not free. This article would make all men equal, and turn the spiritual kingdom of Christ into a worldly, external kingdom; and that is impossible. For a worldly kingdom cannot stand unless there is in it an inequality of persons, so that some are free, some imprisoned, some lords, some subjects, etc.; and St. Paul says in Galatians 3:28, that in Christ master and servant are one thing.8

The notion that all human beings are equal, and possess a natural right to have the precepts of the natural law applied to them in the same way those precepts are imposed on everyone else — this notion is “dead against the Gospel”? It is certainly consistent with traditional natural law theory, but this is of no concern to Luther. The problem is that “a worldly kingdom cannot stand” if there is not a publicly maintained inequality of persons. Once again, we see that Luther’s worry is for the instrumental effects of the natural law, and not with enshrining natural law as a necessary point of departure for establishing moral and civil rectitude. If invoking natural law proves to have deleterious social consequences in a given situation, so much the worse for natural law.

[13] Since Luther nowhere offers a systematic account of natural law, we are forced to cobble together a description of his attitude toward it from the fragmentary comments he makes in texts like the Admonition. Luther’s stance, as presented in this source, is closely related to a contemporary populist version of the ius gentium, in which natural law is portrayed as the consensus position of human beings in all nations as they address the practical needs of their communities. Everyone cherishes peace and order, Luther believes, and thus natural law indicates that the ruler must do whatever is necessary to ensure peace and order. So natural law functions pragmatically to describe those conditions that the citizens of all nations are genuinely inclined to see instituted. As a result, there is no indication in Luther that he shared the conviction of earlier and contemporary scholastics that the natural law descends from divine law via eternal law. Divine law has an entirely different function in Luther. For the Reformer, divine law expresses itself in two ways: first, as a set of strong commands which we cannot satisfy and through which we are confronted with our sin, and second, as the “Christian law,” the law of love. Natural law becomes then an independent source of practical deliberation, rooted not in some metaphysical human nature, but in the common interest of all people for peace, order and equity.

[14] Another example of this attitude of Luther’s is his reply to a question about bigamy — “Whether [a] person may have more than one wife” — which Luther takes up in a letter written to Joseph Levin Metzsch in December, 1526. His response here is a precursor of his action in the infamous case of Philip of Hesse some thirteen years later. Luther writes,

Moreover, although the patriarchs had many wives, Christians may not follow their example, because there is no necessity for doing this, no improvement is obtained thereby, and, especially, there is no word of God to justify this practice, while great offense and trouble may come from it. Accordingly, I do not believe that Christians any longer have this liberty.9

Note the texture of Luther’s argument here. He does not argue that bigamy is a violation of the natural law, that the practice would disturb a natural order in creation (i.e., marriage), or even that this arrangement is opposed to the common judgment of humankind. Instead, he argues against it largely on instrumental and practical grounds — there is no necessity for bigamy, it produces “no improvement” and provokes “great offense and trouble.” In short, it generates negative effects, and those effects far outweigh any prospective benefits. To be sure, Luther adds that he can find no word of God to justify the practice. But he does not rest the argument on that point. However, even if he had built his contention on the lack of any word of God on this subject, that is not a natural law position. Proponents of natural law would have argued that the human inclination toward the practice of monogamous marriage was natural, and therefore promoted the teleological ends of human nature, which are discernable by reason; thus, there ought to be civil laws enshrining monogamy and prohibiting bigamy. But Luther goes nowhere near this line of reasoning. In fact, the absence of any recognizable claim from the natural law tradition in this letter from Luther is striking.

[15] Another source just prior to this time period that demonstrates Luther’s free rearrangement of the natural law tradition is the treatise, On Temporal Authority (1523). In this text, Luther combines natural law, the law of love and the Golden Rule into a single principle that rides roughshod over the careful and elaborate construction of natural law theory he inherited.

For nature teaches the same as love: I ought to do what I would have done unto me. And therefore I may not rob another, however good my claim, since I myself do not want to be robbed. What I would wish in such a case is that the other person should relinquish his right; and therefore I ought also to relinquish mine. And this is how ill-gotten gains should be treated, whether they were come by secretly or openly, so that love and natural law will always prevail. For when you judge in accordance with love, you will distinguish and decide all things easily, without law-books. But if you remove the law of love and nature, you will never hit on what is pleasing to God, even if you had swallowed all the law-books and the lawyers. On the contrary, the more you think about [what you learn from them], the more insane you become. Good judgment is not to be found in books, but from free good sense, as if there were no books. But it is love and natural law, with which all reason is filled, that confer such good judgment. From the books come oppressive and uncertain judgments.10

Both natural law and the law of love teach the same thing, namely, the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule, in turn, is a representation of reason, which manifests itself as “free good sense.” The exercise of reason is nothing more than the activity of love and natural law, and this activity produces “good judgment,” which is the application of the Golden Rule. So Luther’s argument here is indelibly circular, but no matter; the point is that the Golden Rule is the fundamental moral principle at work in human interactions, and both nature and the requirements of neighbor-love teach this principle. Luther’s argument here is substantially different from that of previous Christian positions on the role of the Golden Rule. For these earlier Christian thinkers, natural law does not perform the practical and instrumental function of picking out the Golden Rule as an independent norm that informs my proper conduct toward the neighbor, as it does for Luther. The theory inherited by Luther understands natural law in its classical sense, as the divinely established system of moral goodness, of which the Golden Rule may serve as a summary expression. This summary principle in no way replaces natural law as the mechanism by which all persons may reliably understand what is necessary for human flourishing. But for Luther, natural law plays exactly this kind of secondary role as pointing out the primary function of the Golden Rule in guiding the “good judgment” of persons acting in the public domain. Once again, natural law in Luther’s hands describes, not a hallowed and rational moral order rightly governing human conduct, but a set of innate instincts that operate merely as a useful instrument for directing our attention toward appropriate actions that serve the neighbor. Thus, there is nothing in Luther that resembles the complete natural ontology of law we might find in someone like Aquinas; rather, natural law is for the Reformer a pragmatic tool employed to guide our practical judgments.

[16] So what does a “good judgment,” informed by the Golden Rule and endorsed by natural law and the law of love, look like? Luther will illustrate.

Let me give you an example. There is a story told of Duke Charles of Burgundy. A nobleman captured his enemy. The wife of the captive came to ransom him. The nobleman said he would give the man back to her if she slept with him. The woman was virtuous, but wanted her husband released, and so she went and asked her husband whether she should do it to get him freed. The man wanted to be free and to save his life, and permitted it. But the day after the nobleman had slept with the woman, he had her husband beheaded, and gave him back to her dead. The woman complained of this to Duke Charles who summoned the nobleman and ordered him to take the woman as his wife. After the wedding day, he had the man beheaded, placed the woman in possession of his goods and restored her honor. A truly princely punishment on wickedness. Now no pope, no lawyer and no book could have taught him to give such a verdict. Rather it came from unfettered reason, which is greater than all the laws in books; it is so just a judgment that everyone is bound to approve it and find written in his heart that it is right. Augustine writes the same in his De sermone Domini in monte. And therefore written law is to be held in lower regard than reason, for indeed reason is the source of all laws, that from which they sprang. The source is not to be constricted by the stream, and reason is not to be held captive by letters.11

[17] The sanction for this action of Duke Charles in the story is written in the hearts of all who hear it? The lex talionis is the natural law? What can Luther possibly mean here? Luther is presumably relying on some notion of equity as the basis for his approval of this episode, an equity that satisfies the primitive desire for retributive justice. This is the work of “unfettered reason,” the reason that is not to be held captive to letters, nor even captive to the Word of God, but is instead captive to the popular and universal opinion of the public. Luther seems to have collapsed natural law completely into ius gentium, or the law of the nations, and to regard ius gentium as equivalent to the acceptable instincts of people everywhere. But is it really the case that such a judgment as the one enacted by Duke Charles, which earns approbation from Luther, is the result of natural law and the law of love? The traditional teaching of natural law would only commend this type of action under the most extreme of circumstances. But Luther endorses it without hesitation. His understanding of natural law is obviously at variance with that of traditional position. Once again, we are led to suspect that natural law for Luther has essentially instrumental value. If natural law fosters an outcome that the general public will applaud for its crude equity, then appeals to natural law are appropriate.

[18] Luther’s sermons during this period of social upheaval also contain references to the subject of natural law. But these sermons continue the themes Luther has already been sounding: natural law is a synopsis of the type of dispositions we happen to find in all persons; it is expressed in what moves and affects people and is not the product of reason; and it functions instrumentally to propose those decisions and actions that will generate the pragmatic goods of peace, order and justice. In a sermon preached in January, 1525, Luther reiterates his understanding that natural law rests on a single foundational principle that is logically prior to any of the precepts of the classical natural law, namely, the familiar principle of the Golden Rule. Luther says:

Where are to be found any who comprehend the meaning of the little phrase “thy neighbor,” notwithstanding there is, beside this commandment, the natural law of service written in the hearts of all men? Not an individual is there who does not realize, and who is not forced to confess, the justice and truth of the natural law outlined in the command (Matt 7:12), “All things therefore whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, even so do ye also unto them.” The light of this law shines in the inborn reason of all men. Did they but regard it, what need have they of books, teachers or laws? They carry with them in the depths of their hearts a living book, fitted to teach them fully what to do and what to omit, what to accept and what to reject, and what decision to make.12

[19] It sounds at this point as if Luther is suggesting that all a person needs to do, in order to know explicitly what is morally required for service to “thy neighbor,” is to inspect the inner workings of this law “written in the hearts of all men.” However, as Luther continues, he will insist that this light of inborn reason has dimmed considerably, and that it is futile to attempt to construct an ethic out of the natural law thus instilled in human beings. Luther concludes his discussion of natural law with a theme that will resound in his writings on the topic from this point forward: the effects of the Fall on the human psyche. Luther says:

“But evil lust and sinful love obscure the light of natural law, and blind man, until he fails to perceive the guide- book in his heart and to follow the clear command of reason. Hence he must be restrained and repelled by external laws and material books, with the sword and by force. He must be reminded of his natural light and have his own heart revealed to him. Yet admonition does not avail; he does not see the light. Evil lust and sinful love blind him. With the sword and with political laws he must still be outwardly restrained from perpetrating actual crimes.”13

In fact, this entire sermon is a polemic against the effort to establish a law-like model for human moral conduct. Luther argues that all people in their natural condition, including Christians, are unable because of sin — “evil lust and sinful love” — to utilize the resources of the natural law written on their hearts. Luther lectures his congregation in this sermon on the folly of legislating our response to the neighbor, whether by the natural law or any other system of moral rules. As he describes it, the law is purely negative in its function: it cannot tell us (because of our sin) what is the good that we should do, but can only work to prevent us from doing evil. Of course, one would need to read the entire sermon to see this recurring emphasis.

[20] This sermon is typical of Luther’s scattered comments on natural law (and typical as well of such comments by the other sixteenth century Lutheran reformers). There is a natural law, but the practical reality is that, because the created order has been made so dysfunctional by sin, this natural law is useless to human beings as they seek to understand how to live rightly and serve the neighbor.

[21] It is sometimes argued that Luther’s catechetical exposition of the Ten Commandments makes them into exemplars of natural law. But Luther was ambivalent about the precise relationship of the Decalogue and the natural law, particularly during the 1520s, when his thoughts were concentrated on questions of how Christians can know what is right and good when the structures of authority were crumbling all around them. In a typically blunt sermon preached in August, 1525, when Karlstadt had tentatively softened his extreme iconoclasm and doctrine of the Eucharist, and Luther was trying to separate the younger man from more radical elements, he took issue with those who insisted that observance of the Ten Commandments was a requirement of the faithful Christian life.

To be sure, the Gentiles have certain laws in common with the Jews, such as these: there is one God, no one is to do wrong to another, no one is to commit adultery or murder or steal, and others like them. This is written by nature into their hearts; they did not hear it straight from heaven as the Jews did.

We will regard Moses as a teacher, but we will not regard him as our lawgiver — unless he agrees with both the New Testament and the natural law.14

[22] At least on this occasion, Luther suggests that it is not the case that natural law is derived from the Ten Commandments, but that the Ten Commandments are derived from the natural law. As a result, natural law, which Luther has exhibited a strong tendency to treat as an expression of the “natural” interests of the people, is also a template by which the Decalogue is to be measured. Jews and Gentiles have many of the same laws; and these common statutes comprise the most important legal precepts. How did the Gentiles receive them? By an alternate route: engraved on the heart rather than written in stone. Because this alternate route is prior to and more basic than revelation, Luther seems inclined to regard these generic laws as something like a set of authentic instincts in people that represent their most fundamental desires for the quality of their public life. Luther does not deal with these “natural instincts” (e.g., for peace and order) as rational or even as cognitively apprehended. What the scholastics would have seen as explicitly and essentially rational, Luther regards as precognitive and essentially affective. Luther continues:

Therefore it is natural to honor God, not steal, not commit adultery, not bear false witness, not murder; and what Moses commands is nothing new. For what God has given the Jews from heaven, he has also written in the hearts of all men. Thus I keep the commandments which Moses has given, not because Moses gave the commandment, but because they have been implanted in me by nature, and Moses agrees exactly with nature, etc.15

Luther concludes this sermon with a threefold distinction: human desires expressed through the natural law, the law of Moses, and the teachings of Christ

I have stated that all Christians, and especially those who handle the word of God and attempt to teach others, should take heed and learn Moses aright. Thus where he gives the commandments, we are not to follow him except so far as he agrees with the natural law. Moses is a teacher and doctor of the Jews. We have our own master, Christ, and he has set before us what we are to know, observe, do, and leave undone.16

[23] So Luther treats natural law as a manifestation of human affective states implanted in us by creation, to which Mosaic law must conform if the latter is to be authoritative in the Christian life. The Mosaic law has no religious sanction of its own for Christians. But both natural law and Mosaic law are subordinated to the teachings of Christ, which are the normative standards for the Christian. It is possible to argue that in Luther, natural and Mosaic law are rudimentary forms of moral guidance, being derived from the mundane realms of nature and human history, and lack the supernatural authority of Christ’s own words. Again we see that Luther avoids offering any kind of divine ontology for moral law, contrasting the earthbound claims of natural law with the spiritual mandates proclaimed by our Master, Christ.

[24] This will turn out to be the recurrent motif in Luther’s account of the natural law. We have seen that this account consists of four related assertions. First, Luther’s understanding of the “natural” element in natural law is reduced to something like “natural instinct,” or the affective dimension of human life. There are things in life that we “naturally” seek out, and these include peace, prosperity, good order, family, friendship, and other similar goods. But these are not rational precepts, and they do not require an unfallen reason to intuit them. For Luther, nature and reason have come apart, and thus natural law seems more aligned with animal instinct than with rational apprehension. So Luther agrees this far with the scholastics: human dispositions are signs of the natural law. But for the scholastics these dispositions are rationally construed to indicate a divine moral order; with Luther, these dispositions are natural only in the sense that all people agree on the common objects of their desires.

[25] Second, insofar as these natural instincts can be translated into moral maxims, they represent for Luther practical considerations rather than divine commands. The precepts of the natural law are ends to be pragmatically achieved within human communities, and not laws to be obeyed regardless of consequences. In our fallen condition, no law of divine origin can be adequately obeyed anyway. But human laws, provisionally designed and flexibly applied, can be observed under most conditions. All persons desire peace, and so Luther believes it incumbent upon the Prince to figure out suitable strategies for securing peace. This is the proper use of reason, as far as Luther is concerned: to reckon the best means for accomplishing the ends toward which we are naturally disposed. This is the instrumental value of the natural law, directing us to those basic human goods that are ends of human life.

[26] Third, the result of all this is that Luther refuses either to create or to approve an ontology of moral deliberation and action. He will not ratify the traditional version of natural law, and he will not construct his own system. It does not go too far to suggest that Luther thinks of ethics as fundamentally local and circumstantial. What is universal in ethics are the “natural instincts” of human persons. But the rendering of those instincts into a series of practical judgments applied to specific situations in order to realize the goods embedded in those instincts is something for Luther that can only take place on the ground, in the midst of the immediate context where the opportunities for right action actually present themselves.

[27] Finally, Luther understands natural law not as a Christian teaching, but as an observation of human nature in general. It is apparent that, since the Fall, human reason is disordered, and cannot be relied on for identifying those goods that lead to human flourishing. Instead, Luther holds that we must rely on our natural instincts for this purpose. But this is something that all persons have done, in every time and place, and continue to do, even now in the Christian era. The Jew, the Turk, and the heathen employ the same tactics of ethical deliberation, the same resources of the natural law, that Christians do. In this sense, there appears to be no such thing as a “Christian ethics” for Luther. There is just ethics, a human activity fueled by natural desires, satisfied by practical arrangements, enforced by political structures, producing at its best the conditions under which each one may serve the neighbor and live in peace. But if there is no such thing as a distinctively “Christian ethics” for Luther, then ethics itself cannot be eligible for theological treatment. Theology and ethics for Luther live in two different worlds.

[28] Ultimately, Luther creates a new account of natural law morality: instinctive, not rational; provisional, not ontologically secured; pragmatic, not divinely commanded; chastened by sin, not robust with natural human possibilities. When he invokes natural law, it is with a different insight than that supplied him by the classical natural law tradition. In the end, natural law turns out to be little more than a descriptive phrase in Luther, portraying the way in which human beings recognize what is approximately good and right and appropriate in the mundane realm of civil righteousness. With this in mind, it is not difficult to understand why Luther appears determined to avoid treating the civil righteousness promoted by natural law as a theological issue.

1. Martin Luther, A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, text prepared by Philip Watson (Cambridge, England: James Clarke and Co., Ltd., 1953, 1978), p. 66.

2. Ernest Troeltsch, Die Religion in Geschichte and Gegenwart, 3rd edition, Volume 4 (Tubingen, Germany: 1957-1965), p. 697ff.

3. Karl Holl, The Cultural Significance of the Reformation (Cleveland, Ohio: The World Publishing Company, 1959), p. 50.

4. John T. McNeil, “Natural Law in Luther’s Thought,” Church History, Volume X, Number 3 (September, 1941), pp. 224, 227.

5. William Lazareth, Christians in Society: Luther, the Bible, and Social Ethics Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 2001), pp. 157, 225.

6. Martin Luther, Lecture on Psalm 51, WA 40 II, 327, 11-328.

7. Martin Luther, Admonition to Peace: A Reply to the Twelve Articles of the Peasants in Swabia, translated by Charles M. Jacobs and revised by Robert C. Schultz, edited by Theodroe G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967), Volume 3, pp. 325-327.

8. Martin Luther, Admonition, p. 323.

9. The text of this letter is printed in W.H.T. Dau, Luther Examined and Reexamined: A Review of Catholic Criticism and a Plea for Reevaluation (St Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1917), p. 103.

10. Martin Luther, On Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed, in Selected Writings of Martin Luther, Volume 2, edited by Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Fortess Press, 1967), p. 318.

11. Martin Luther, On Temporal Authority, pp. 318-319.

12. Martin Luther, “Sermon for the Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany, January 29, 1525,” Weimar Ausgabe 17.1.2:88-104.

13. Luther, Martin, “Sermon for the Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany, January 29, 1525.”

14. Luther, Martin, “How Christians Should Regard Moses,” translated and edited by E. Theodore Bachmann, Luther’s Works, vol. 35 (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1960), pp. 161-174.

15. Luther, Martin, “How Christians Should Regard Moses.”

16. Luther, Martin, “How Christians Should Regard Moses.”

Thomas D. Pearson

Thomas D. Pearson is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg, Texas.