The Revival of Natural Law. Philosophical, theological and ethical responses to the Finnis-Grisez School

Written by Nigel Biggar and Rufus Black, (eds.) Reviewed By Andy Draycott

John Finnis and Germaine Grisez give their names to a ‘school’ of renewed attention to Natural law as a source for ethical reflection. One of the chief interests of this renewal, and the assessments of it here assembled, is the extent to which this is a theological enterprise at all. Whilst John Finnis is a professor of jurisprudence, his colleague Grisez, is a moral theologian whose major (ongoing) work latterly takes the title The Way of the Lord Jesus. Although Finnis and Grisez are Catholic, the editors and various contributors also see the importance of a Protestant engagement with natural law possibilities. Indeed Biggar contributes an essay, in keeping with his previous scholarship, which demonstrates that the most vehement opponent of ‘natural theology’, Karl Barth, nevertheless had covert recourse to thought in keeping with a natural law approach.

The book is divided into three sections: Part I—Philosophical Issues; Part II—Theological Dimensions; Part III—Moral Fields; and these are preceded by an introduction to the new natural law theory. Beyond this introduction, one is thrown fairly quickly into the discussion so this is really a reference book for the student of Christian ethics rather than the casually interested reader. Partly because of the desire to produce a rationally grounded philosophical theory of ethics much of the discussion runs to important, but heavy semantic and theoretical definition. The theory stakes out a claim that certain basic goods (seven or eight) are self-evident in the project of human flourishing. Principles of practical reasonableness can be formulated to then produce moral norms in particular situations.

Whilst all the contributors affirm an ethical realism that underlies the natural law project they variously criticise the precise list of basic goods, the coherence of the school’s theory in the norms derived by practical reason and the insufficient theological grounding of the project. I choose the word ‘variously’ advisedly because although Biggar bravely attempts to draw together some conclusions these cannot count on much unity given the very diverse treatments and concerns of the authors, approaching from the fields of sociology, psychology, philosophy, medieval studies and theology. For what it’s worth this reviewer finds the project an interesting systematic treatment but one which does not really call upon the theological resources that it claims to own. Much more could be made of creation-order and Christian moral knowledge in Christ. The school’s normative conclusions that support the Magisterium of the Catholic Church look forced, a point which a number of contributors develop.

If the revival of natural law is going to be a foundationally Christian enterprise that can converse with other ethical traditions, rather than a universalising philosophical revival that converges with some Christian positions, more openness will be needed as to the particular Christian presuppositions that inform theology, philosophy and ethics.

Andy Draycott

Andy Draycott
Biola University
La Mirada, California, USA