Ethics through Covenant: A Primer on Progressive Covenantalism and Moral Theology (Part 3)

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(3) Natural Law Ethics through Covenant

In this third and final section of the essay, I want to explore the foundations for natural law and why progressive covenantalism best grounds a doctrine of the natural law for New Covenant Christians.

Applying the Hermeneutics of Progressive Covenantalism to Ethics

Progressive Covenantalism allows us to trace the unity and consonance of the moral law and moral goods through the whole canon of Scripture. Owing to the fact that for morality to be what morality must be—objective, intelligible, universal, and obligatory—it makes progressive covenantalism all the more attractive as an ethical hermeneutic because it allows us to see the seamlessness, continuity, and coherence of Christian ethics throughout the entire canon even as we understand the unique place of creational goods throughout the progression of the covenants. What progressive covenantalism allows for us to understand is the existence of those moral goods begun at the covenant of creation and affirmed within the present age. This necessarily brings us to considerations of the natural law, the branch of Christian ethics that argues for (1) the existence of a divinely-given moral order and moral law, and (2) the ability for rational agents to grasp (albeit, imperfectly, because of sin) the natural law.

The first point is to locate the ordering principle of the natural law before we even look to the content of the natural law. Progressive covenantalism proves especially helpful in considerations for grounding the natural law in the New Covenant since the one who ordered creation is seen as Jesus Christ, and not some abstract “force.” Passages like John 1:1–3, Colossians 1:15–17, and 1 Corinthians 8:6 offer a more detailed unveiling of how creation was ordered with respect to the Son, who would be fully revealed in time.

Here, then, is an example of the natural methodological flow of how progressive covenantalism functions as a paradigm: Genesis 1 does not, on its own textual basis, yield a Christological reading of the text. But as New Covenant Christians, we are authorized to read Genesis with the light of later revelation because the authors of the New Testament do so. At the same time, it is not as though the Genesis narrative is untrue or irrelevant. Rather, we are instructed to read Genesis 1 through the lens of Christ. Doing so results in us seeing that the New Covenant depicts Jesus as the ordering force for the existence of the cosmos, and, by necessary consequence, the natural law.

Natural Law

The natural law reflects the divine reason of the Logos, Jesus Christ.[1] Supremely, Christians must have a concern for the natural law because we are called to love Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the origin and terminus of the natural law. He is truth (John 14:6) who sets humanity free to pursue communion with him (John 8:32). He testifies to the enduring authority and intelligibility of creation order (Matt. 19:4–6). He is reason, the rationale for reason, and reason personified. In this, Christ is the ratio, ratio legis, and ratione personae of the natural law.[2] Christ as the ratio (reason) of the natural law means he is the basis of reason itself. To say Christ is the ratio legis (reason for the law) of the natural law means he is “the logical element of the law, or the purpose that animated the legislator in the issuance of the law.”[3] Christ’s own glory is the reason any such moral law exists. As to the ratione personae (reason of his person), a Protestant and evangelical account of natural law through progressive covenantalism sees the logic and instantiation of the natural law as inextricably bound with God’s plan to sum up all things, even the principles of sound moral reasoning, in the person, Jesus Christ (Eph 1:9–10). This understanding stands in contrast to traditional expressions of natural law theory that depict law as an impersonal “ordinance of reason”—or Tao, to use C. S. Lewis’s term in The Abolition of Man.

1. In this section, I am seasoning Progressive Covenantalism with categories drawn from natural law theory and classical jurisprudence.

2. These terms come from Aaron X. Fellmeth and Maurice Horwitz, eds., Guide to Latin in International Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

3. Ratio legis,” Educalingo.

Moral Goods

We should now focus on the moral goods in Scripture since their uniformity and continuity are vital to the task of Christian ethics in the world. First, it is important to define a “moral good” as the following: A moral good is any end sought for its own sake and not for the sake of some greater end. A moral good is a moral endpoint or moral destiny that we are ordered to achieve that completes or fulfills our nature by virtue of the kinds of beings God has made us to be. To experience a “moral good” means to achieve the end for which we have been made. By virtue of bearing God’s image, all human beings, whether regenerate or unregenerate, are still bound to moral goods since these goods inhere within creation order. Here I want to rely on the work of Herman Bavinck. Moral goodness is what Herman Bavinck referred to as “natural morality.” Progressive covenantalism rejects the bifurcation between what moral obligations non-Christians and Christians are called to obey. Instead, progressive covenantalism helps sort out the moral commands binding exclusively as a witness to redeemed life in the Kingdom of God from those moral commands that are universally binding on all. Both Christians and non-Christians are bound by God’s moral commands, but Christians are bound by additional moral commands due to their citizenship in the kingdom of God.

For example, Christians are commanded to eschew retributive violence, but this command cannot be realistically expected of political powers in this age. Natural moral goods given in creation do not subsist in different kind or degree of obligation even in light of redemption. What is afforded the Christian, however, is the ability to “discern better than others with the light of the Word what is in nature and thereby [learn] to distinguish between nature and grace.”[4] The order of redemption ratifies the order of creation. This means, crucially, that moral goods which Christians insist are real bind all human agents because they are participants in creation order. The chart below explains the relationship between creational goods and their ratification in the New Covenant.

4. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Ethics: Created, Fallen, and Converted Humanity, ed. John Bolt, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019), 228.
Creational OrdinanceNon-instrumental Natural Moral GoodRedemptive Ratification of Creational Ordinance
Existence and self-constitution (Gen. 1:26-27 Ex. 20:13)LifeLuke 18:20; Romans 13:9
Embodiment (Gen 1:26-27; Gen. 2:18-24; Ex. 20:13)LifeMatt. 19:4-6
Marriage (Gen. 2:18-24; Gen. 9:1; Ex. 20:14)FamilyMatt. 19:4-6; Eph. 5:22-33; 1 Tim. 4:1-5
Children (Gen. 1:28; Gen. 9:1); Psalm 127:3-5FamilyMatt. 19:14; Eph. 6:1-4; Col. 3:20
Political Authority (Gen. 9:5-6; Ex. 20:12)OrderRom. 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17
Beauty (Gen. 2:23; Psalm 19:1-6)Aesthetic AppreciationPhil. 4:8
Rest (Gen 2:1-3; Ex. 20:8-11)Leisure and RecreationMark 6:31; Matt. 11:28-30
Vocation/Labor (Gen. 1:28; Gen. 2:15; Ex. 20:8; Prov. 22:29)Skillful Performance2 Thess. 3:10; Eph 4:28; 1 Tim 5:8
Political Justice (Gen. 9:5-6)JusticeRom 13:1-7
Friendship (Prov. 18:24; Prov. 27: 17)SociabilityMatt. 5:21-23; John 15:12-15
Wisdom, moral sensibility, moral obligation (Psalm 1 & 8; Prov. 34:12) Prudence and Practical Reasonableness1 Cor 10:31; Col. 3:17
Advancement of Knowledge and Industry (Gen. 4:21-22)KnowledgePhil. 4:8; 1 Cor. 10:31; Col. 1:10, 3:10
Worship and Orientation to the Divine (Gen. 1:26-27; Ex. 20:2-7)Alignment with Transcendent RealityActs 17:16-34
Commutative Justice (Ex. 20:15)Justice1 Thess. 4:6; Eph. 4:28
God’s Providential Rule and Divine Illumination (Gen. 1:1; Psalm 36:9)Alignment with Transcendent RealityActs 14:13-18
Truthful Communication (Ex. 20:16)TruthEph. 4:25; James 3
Internal Motive and Integrity (Gen. 2:16; Ex. 20:17; Prov. 2)Integral Human FulfillmentMatt. 15:11; Phil. 4:7

Moral goodness, then, reflects God’s own goodness (1 Pet. 1:15–16). While basic moral goods are irreducibly and inescapably absolute in that their intelligibility is true by the sheer force of their own reasonableness and choice-worthiness, the existence of the good and the determination of its goodness is a set of conditions that the good cannot achieve on its own. God gives moral goodness out of his own character.

It is my contention, then, that Progressive Covenantalism provides fertile ground for rooting the existence of the natural law covenantally: First, in the order of creation, and then secondly, with a view towards understanding how those creational goods are re-affirmed in the New Testament. For instance, Paul can argue for the existence of a creation order and natural law in Romans because he understands the covenant of creation to retain intelligibility (Rom. 1:18–32; Rom. 2:14–15). Bavinck goes on to affirm such goods as bodily life, marriage, family, friendship, vocation and industry, the advancement of knowledge, aesthetics, liberty of conscience, and public justice upheld through a system of law as pillars of creational order for this age.[5] With remarkable similarity to the natural law categories of New Natural Lawyers John Finnis and Germain Grisez, these are pillars of the natural law. These goods are goods in themselves according to Bavinck, and while they do not bring someone to salvation, they “bring us closer to the kingdom of heaven, but it can never bring us in.”[6]

5. Bavinck, 1:230–32.

6. Bavinck, 1:232.

The Cash Value of Progressive Covenantalism

The moral goods mentioned above, for Bavinck, are what allow for civic virtue, human survival, and modest social tranquility to persist despite sin. With PC, we can root the existence of the natural law in creation order and also within the ongoing platform provided for the natural law by the Noahic covenant. Natural human longing for moral goodness is what Bavinck uses as confirmation for Christianity’s supremacy against other systems of thought that cannot account for morality in a coherent way. Because Christianity accounts for what pagans aspire after in their common life, Christianity embodies ultimate moral fulfillment and can explain the enduring reality of why moral longing exists and what it is.[7]

7. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 319–20.

By the same token, PC allows us to understand the already-not-yet relationship between the ongoing reality of the natural law set alongside the expectations for what redeemed life looks like within the Kingdom and given finite expression in local churches. Regeneration does not suspend the abiding validity of the moral goods; rather, the heavenly good should “animate the moral life, control it, subject it, and make it its instrument” so that the task of ethics “is therefore to describe how regenerate people are to manifest their eternal heavenly life in the form of the temporal earthly life.”[8] Or, as Carl F. H. Henry similarly observed: “The ethics of redemption is not a new morality that reflects a fundamental change in the will of God regarding the essential content of the good. It preserves in full force his rule of righteousness.”[9]

8. Bavinck, Reformed Ethics: Created, Fallen, and Converted Humanity, 1:235.

9. Carl F. H. Henry, Christian Personal Ethics, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 157.

Progressive covenantalism helps us to see that regeneration does not negate the natural law or natural moral goods but illuminates them and allows for even greater obedience to their precepts and greater joy upon their obtainment. Nowhere in the New Testament are the principles of the natural law and creation order nullified, suspended, or abrogated. Because the principles of the natural law are part of a created whole by God, they can no more be suspended than God could suspend his own being. The New Testament offers a pathway for greater conformity to the natural law, which, by the power of the Holy Spirit, helps our nature learn the glory of the very first act of grace, which is creation itself (e.g., 1 Cor. 6:12–20). While common grace preserves nature, saving graces ratifies nature’s original intelligibility and illuminates nature’s fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Saving grace restores nature to our ultimate end in knowing God as beings designed to be in relationship with him. Saving grace situates nature’s economy within the realm of redemption such that, in Christ, the fullness of humanity is both repristinated and reaches its highest fulfillment even as we await a new creation. As Bernd Wannenwetsch writes, “Christ restores creation by helping those who after the Fall have to live ‘natural lives’ to re-connect with the divine purpose of all creation so as to become what they have been destined for in the beginning.”[10] Or, as Jonathan Edwards said to the same effect, “But in the sanctifying work of the Holy Ghost, not only remaining principles are assisted to do their work to a greater degree, but those principles are restored that were utterly destroyed by the fall; [so that] the mind habitually exerts those acts that the dominion of sin had made the soul wholly destitute of.”[11]

10. Bernd Wannenwetsch, “Creation and Ethics: On the Legitimacy and Limitation of Appeals to ‘Nature’ in Christian Moral Reasoning,” in Within the Love of God: Essays on the Doctrine of God in Honour of Paul S. Fiddes, ed. Anthony Clarke and Andrew Moore (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 210.

11. Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 13:513.

Through the prism of Progressive Covenantalism, therefore, the gospel’s effect on the Christian’s life does not eradicate human nature so as to propose a whole new ethics at odds with creaturely being. Rather, as the Holy Spirit gives us understanding into the true condition of human fallenness, we are made aware of what constitutes true creaturely fulfillment and happiness.

The Holy Spirit’s regenerating effect on human understanding and human agency transforms the framework for how morality is activated and achieved within and upon the Christian agent. This regenerating effect does not transform the content of morality, but the framework itself (Rom. 12:1–2; 1 Cor. 6:9–10; Col. 3:10, 17). An example may help explain: A Christian and a non-Christian can both know that viewing pornography is wrong. The non-Christian may feel shame and remorse because their conscience testifies to a law written on the heart that tells him or her that objectifying a body for the sake of individual sexual gratification is wrong. The Christian also knows that viewing pornography is wrong from their conscience and special revelation (Matt. 5:27), but the Christian is also indwelled by the Holy Spirit to know the true end of our sexuality, which is not just procreation, but also a reflection of the Christ-church union. The Christian is also empowered to live a life of holiness (1 Cor. 6:19–20). The ontological substance of the moral norm has not changed (e.g., pornography is wrong for all persons) even though the Christian has epistemological insights that allows them to know at a deeper level what the full ramifications of pornography are.

Even if we grant that our relationship to the natural law has changed as those who are regenerated and are no longer judicially condemned by failing to obey it, the fact remains that Christ obeyed the natural law in its fullness. In doing so, he demonstrates how “original human destiny is achieved for those who believe in him.”[12] The natural law, rooted in creation, and the moral goods themselves do not undergo an ontological change from creation to redemption. Natural principles of morality must have their own integrity or else general morality is not what is required for it to be true morality—universality. Progressive covenantalism takes natural principles set forth in creation and gives them directional and eschatological fullness in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Those within the realm of creation cannot attain the realm of redemption without the intervening grace of God but neither does the Christian’s participation in the realm of redemption negate their participation within the order of creation. A Christian has a heightened plane of awareness of what their participation in the order of creation means and are to leaven the order of creation with the truths of redemption’s promised fulfillment.

12. VanDrunen, Divine Covenants and Moral Order (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 436.

The nature of moral goods does not change from a state of unregeneracy to regeneration; modes of motivation to obtain them change and knowledge of them deepens. The moral goods are what they are as expression of God’s eternal law; what changes is the understanding of the framework from which those goods are grasped and what their purpose is in relationship to ultimate matters. The Christian and the non-Christian can both grasp the good of family life. But it is only the Christian who can rightly order their understanding of family in relationship to the kingdom of God. A man who is a brother in Christ to me, Matt, does not cause me to forsake or detach the earthly brotherhood of my biological sibling, Chris. The Christian and the non-Christian can both grasp the good of vocational labor and supporting one’s family even while the church practices a radical command to hold all things in common (2 Thess. 3:10; Acts 4:32–35).

Morality within a Progressive Covenantalist framework illuminates our understanding of creation order, human design, and life in society. One of the most valuable aspects of natural law is how it illuminates the order of God’s world. Progressive Covenantalism affords us the ability to ground that natural law within the full canonical witness. Rather than walking blind, the principles of natural law that are affirmed through Progressive Covenantalism guide us into alignment with creation order and, in turn, human flourishing.[13]

13. Portions of this section are adapted from my forthcoming volume, Faithful Reason: Natural Law Ethics for God’s Glory and Our Good (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2024).

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Author

  • Andrew T. Walker

    Andrew T. Walker is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also serves as an Associate Dean in the School of Theology. He is a Fellow with The Ethics and Public Policy Center and Managing Editor of WORLD Opinions. He and his family are members of Highview Baptist Church where he leads a Sunday community group and men’s Bible study.

Andrew T. Walker

Andrew T. Walker

Andrew T. Walker is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also serves as an Associate Dean in the School of Theology. He is a Fellow with The Ethics and Public Policy Center and Managing Editor of WORLD Opinions. He and his family are members of Highview Baptist Church where he leads a Sunday community group and men’s Bible study.