Moral Knowledge and Nature

In a review of Richard Sherlock’s Nature’s End: The Theological Meaning of the New Genetics (Religion and Contemporary Culture) in Touchstone , J. Daryl Charles responds to Sherlock’s claim that in both Thomas and Calvin “natural law in any of its forms is ultimately an inadequate moral guide.” The Calvinist reasons are that “our sinful nature is too corrupt for us to perceive in [nature] any teleology,” and that moral knowledge depends not only on knowledge of God as Creator but also on knowledge of God as redeemer, “a knowledge disclosed only in Christ.” For Calvin, self-knowledge “amounts not to the beginning of moral knowledge, but to the knowledge of personal corruption.” (All quotations here are from Sherlock.)

The Thomist reason is that grace is integral to nature: “If nature and grace form a symbiotic union in which grace perfects nature, then we cannot possibly understand nature and its ordering apart from a comprehensive understanding of our final end, which is God.” Again, teleology is critical to moral knowledge; to know what to do, we need to know for what end or ends we exist. And this can be known only through the revelation, the gospel.

To this Daryl has several responses.

He finds in Sherlock a “‘Protestant’ tendency to erect a false dichotomy between nature and grace.” He critiques this by saying that no natural law theorists “juxtapose” nature and grace as Sherlock does; rather, nature reveals God because it is revelation. He also argues that no natural law theorist claims that general revelation is salvific. Yet, though not salvific, natural law their is not “unimportant” and the purpose of general revelation ” is indeed to impart ‘the beginning of moral knowledge.’”

I don’t at this point wish to defend Sherlock’s claims, though I agree with him (at least I agree with what I know from Daryl’s summary). Whatever the force of the book’s arguments, though, Daryl’s criticisms are not persuasive.

For starters, from Daryl’s own summary, it seems that Sherlock is doing precisely the opposite of what Daryl claims. He is not erecting a dichotomy between nature and grace, but insisting on their “symbiotic” unity.

Henri de Lubac would certainly disagree with Daryl’s second claim: There have, in fact, been natural law theorists who “juxtapose” nature and grace. That was the corruption of Thomism that de Lubac spent his life exposing and refuting.

As to Daryl’s final rebuttal, it is irrelevant: From the summary he provides, Sherlock doesn’t say nature saves. The statements that Daryl quotes are strictly about the sources of moral knowledge. Sherlock may be arguing something like this: Nature cannot give moral knowledge; moral knowledge comes through revelation and the gospel; therefore, only those who believe the gospel have true moral knowledge; genuine moral knowledge is thus one of the effects of salvation. But this is far from implying that natural revelation saves. Again, it implies precisely the opposite.

Questions about the role of natural law come down, in my view, to a simple question: Do revelation and the gospel reveal the truth about man? Do we need to know about Jesus to know the meaning of human existence and of creation? If we do, then whatever we can learn from observation of creation (and we can admittedly learn a lot) is inadequate to determine who we are or what we are to do.

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