Book Review: On the Law of Nature

On the Law of Nature: A Demonstrative Method. By Niels Hemmingsen. Translated by E. J. Hutchinson. Grand Rapids: CLP Academic, 2018.

The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, and more recently the Roman Catholic Reformation scholar Brad Gregory, have argued that the Protestant Reformation rejected natural law theory, as well as virtue ethics. In particular, Gregory has asserted that the failure of modern Western society to train people in virtue is an indirect legacy of the Reformation. Believing humans were dead in sin, the Magisterial Reformers held that it was pointless to inculcate virtue in them. 


One problem with these interpretations is that neither MacIntyre or Gregory take into account the distinction the Magisterial Reformers made between those “things above us” (in which we are unfree) and “things that are below us” (in which we are free). In earthly things, Luther (as well as the young Melanchthon and Calvin) held that humans were free and hence were capable of making better or worse decisions. For this reason, humans could be trained in virtue with regard to civil righteousness, even if such training did not contribute to their salvation.

Beyond Gregory and MacIntyre’s misunderstanding of human agency in the reformers’ thought, there is a massive amount of evidence that Melanchthon and his students greatly valued Aristotle’s ethics and the principle of natural law for training in civil righteousness. The recently translated On the Law of Nature by the Danish Melanchthonian Humanist Niels Hemmingsen is a wonderful example of this. In this book, Korey Maas and E. J. Hutchinson give an excellent introduction to Hemmingsen himself, along with the place of the treatise in ongoing debates about the Reformation and ethical theory. 

For those unfamiliar, Hemmingsen was a Danish theologian who studied in Wittenberg under Melanchthon. He eventually returned to his native country to implement an educational program similar to the one that Melanchthon had promoted in Germany. On the Law of Nature represents his attempt at describing the ethical maxims that one can discover from reason and nature apart from divine revelation. This work was produced a year after Hemmingsen lectured on Romans, where Paul posits the existence of a natural law in the first two chapters. Of course, Paul does not exhaustively specify the content of that law and therefore Hemmingsen believed that it was important to investigate what could be gleamed from human reason and nature to fill out what Paul had meant. Citing numerous classical sources in good humanistic fashion, Hemmingsen is successfully able to establish the Ten Commandments and the orders of creation from nature and reason. The Ten Commandments are discussed in light of how they help humans relate properly to each created order. Hemmingsen also discusses virtue ethics at some length, devoting an entire chapter to the cardinal virtues. Although Hemmingsen asserts that these virtues cannot advance human beings toward salvation, they are essential to functioning of the civil order.

Overall, Hemmingsen’s treatise is a good example of early Lutheran engagement with humanistic learning, as well as a general concern for ethics and their relationship to the civil order. The work is highly recommended as a spur to continued discussion of Lutheran social ethics.

Jack D. Kilcrease
Institute of Lutheran Theology