Van Til Tool

Using the Van Til Perspective as the tool to discover what life means and how it ought to be lived.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006



By Forrest Wayne Schultz

A Review of Stephen J. Grabill, Rediscovering The Natural Law in Reformed
Theological Ethics ( Grand Rapids , Michigan : Eerdmans, 2006)
ISBN 978-0-8028-6313-3 310 pages

The Relevance of The Synod Of Dort

I hold in my hand a book whose front cover is adorned with a beautiful print of an excellent painting of a very important historical event – the convocation of the Synod of Dort during 1618 – 1619 in the city of Dordrecht in Holland . I do not know if the author of this book – the one under review here – requested this particular cover art or not, but it is quite appropriate for the book’s content. The deliberations of the Synod of Dort were characterized by careful and courageous thinking, which enabled the participants to learn and be faithful to the particular truth of God needed to meet a serious deficiency in the church of that time. Dort, therefore, provides us with the kind of example needed to meet the challenge posed by the author – the formulation of a mature, authentically Reformed theological ethical system which includes the natural law.

Natural Law: Reformed or Anti-Reformed ?

Before this task can be undertaken it must be regarded as a legitimate one by the Reformed community. This will require a refutation of the widely held belief that the natural law tradition is fallacious because it is based upon a nature/grace dichotomy and fails to take into account the noetic effects of sin. (p.175) An important feature of this refutation is demonstrating that the natural law doctrine of Calvin’s successors constituted a further development of Calvin’s thought rather than a divergence from it via a relapse into a pre-Reformed “Scholasticism”. Therefore, it needs to be shown that Calvin’s successors did not depart from Reformed theology into a fallacious scholasticism with its objectionable views of natural law, but rather these theologians continued in the Reformed path laid down by Calvin. I believe that the author – Stephen J. Grabill – has established this “continuity” thesis, i.e. that Calvin’s successors developed a theology of natural law which was continuous with the one begun by Calvin, rather than departing from it. After the opposition and doubt concerning natural law have been removed, Reformed theologians can then devote themselves to constructing a complete and mature Reformed doctrine of natural law by building upon the rudimentary theological framework developed by the progression of thinkers which began with Calvin and culminated in Turretin. (p. 18)
The Challenges Involved in Learning the Reformed Doctrine of Natural Law

The theological task to which Grabill summons us will, I believe, be far more difficult than he supposes. First, and most obviously, the plethora of views concerning natural law (and natural revelation) is so great that the task of finding the right view is enormous. Restricting the options to those used by Calvin and his successors narrows the list a great deal but there is still a considerable diversity which is apparent among the five theologians in this progression which Grabill discusses – Calvin, Vermigli, Zanchius, Althusius, and Turretin. And one of these views is so outrageous that it is incredible that Grabill notes it without batting an eye. I refer to the view of Zanchius, which is discussed in some detail on pages 138-139, namely that in the Fall “natural law was almost entirely blotted out” but that God then “inscribed it anew in the minds and hearts of human beings”. (Needless to say, there is no chapter and verse of Scripture provided to support this re-inscriptionist thesis!)

Perhaps an even more arduous task than establishing the right doctrine of natural law will be determining the right doctrine of Biblical law. It is very surprising that Grabill makes no mention of the great diversity of views on Biblical law found not only in the history of Reformed theology, but also in our own time, especially since the rise of the Christian Reconstruction movement.

Finally, the accomplishment of this task will involve contending against two strong (but very different) tendencies within Calvinism -- one very old and the other one new. The old tendency is the notion that after Turretin had written his theology and the Westminster Standards were adopted, that there is nothing more that we need to learn – it has all been figured out. A good illustrative example of this notion is found in that epitome of 19th century Reformed theology – Charles Hodge. As Grabill notes (p. 19) by means of a quotation from Richard Muller, Hodge’s Systematic Theology contains little that was not already found in Turretin. And, according to an anecdote I heard while a student at Westminster Seminary, Hodge even bragged about this: he said referring to his book, “You won’t find anything new in here!”. Now if Grabill is right about Turretin’s work on natural law being merely rudimentary, then why is it that so many Reformed people have acted as though it were complete?? It is clear that any Reformed people today who still have that kind of attitude will be opposed to any suggestion of any improvement upon Turretin (and Hodge). This attitude needs to be repudiated as a clear violation of the Calvinistic semper reformanda principle.


The second and newer tendency is the widespread acceptance of existentialist notions in the Reformed community, which has produced such deleterious results as the loss of The Free University of Amsterdam in Holland and to the weakening of its other educational institutions. Since existentialism is by its very nature opposed to any kind of universal principles and laws (natural or Biblical or otherwise), it is clearly ranged in opposition against Grabill’s proposal to recover natural law. Defeating existentialism requires a clear understanding of how antithetical it is to Reformed theology.

The Scope of Natural Law: The Arts Must Be Included

The term “natural law” (and the term “Biblical law” when it is not being used to refer to the ceremonial law) immediately brings to mind laws regarding such matters as the state, the family, the economy and, secondarily, matters such as diet, health, and the proper treatment of plants, animals, and the land. But it almost never is conceived as including the arts. This glaring omission is, of course, due to perhaps the most egregious weakness of the traditional Reformed community: its hostility or indifference to the arts. Fortunately, in the 20th century several prominent Reformed leaders, such as Francis Schaffer and R. J. Rushdoony, have lamented this glaring inconsistency in the Reformed ethos, which has encouraged some to take steps to correct this malaise.

Through natural revelation it is clear that God’s creatures are not only engineering marvels but that they are also exquisite works of art, meaning that God is not only a scientist/engineer, that He is also an artist. Likewise history is also clearly a drama of which God is the Playwright. From this it is clear that God is beautiful, cares about beauty, is creative, imaginative, has a sense of humor, and is interesting. (Therefore the omission of these divine attributes from the doctrine of God in our systematic theology books constitutes a glaring error.) Since God is our supreme example, we can learn the principles for the production of visual art by studying God’s creatures and we can learn the principles for the production of stories by studying history (provided that the interesting stuff in history is not excluded).

Therefore, the arts must be regarded as being included within the scope of (natural revelation and) natural law. Consequently, Grabill’s proposal must be modified so as not only to include the recovery of what has been lost or is in danger of being lost but also of including what belongs in natural law but has not been included in the usual conceptions because of the Reformed community’s lack of concern for aesthetics.


As a follower of R. J. Rushdoony, I need to refer to myself as a Christian Reconstructionist. But I do NOT like the term because it implies that all we need to do is to recover what was lost. This is clearly not enough because we also need some things we never had. Therefore, in addition to Christian REconstruction, we also need some Christian NEWconstruction. The best example of this NEW construction is developing the Reformed doctrine of the arts, and, as noted above, natural revelation and natural law will play a key role in this development.

If Grabill’s proposal is taken seriously it will lead to a re-examination of matters pertaining to natural revelation and natural law. If that re-examination is to be complete, it must include those matters which have traditionally been excluded, such as the arts.

A New Synod of Dort ??

Because of the great seriousness of the matters discussed here pertaining to the corrections of serious deficiencies in Reformed theology and life, it is appropriate that an international Synod be convened which should be regarded at being at least as serious – actually more so – than the Synod of Dort. If anyone wants something more specific, why not hold in on the quadricentennial anniversary of Dort, i.e. during 2018-2019.

I am not sure if there is any hint of this idea behind the reason for selecting as the book’s cover art, a painting of the Synod of Dort. But, even if unintentional, it is still appropriate for what we need to do.

This review is written under the auspices of the Active Christian Media organization.

Forrest Wayne Schultz has degrees in engineering and theology, including the Th.M degree from Westminster Theological Seminary. He has had articles and book reviews published in The Chalcedon Report, The Journal of Christian Reconstruction, and in several engineering and space magazines. He writes news releases covering the arts scene in Coweta County, GA, where he resides, and he led a workshop on the writing of news releases at the recently held Muse Online Writers Conference. He can be reached at 770-583-3258 or by email at



  • At Thursday, October 25, 2007, Blogger Martin said…

    I believe that a reformation awaits us all.

    I attend a Reformed Church whose leadership seems to openly differ, diverge and diviate from (Calvinistic) reformational thought.

    Could you reserve me a seat at the next Synod of Dort?


  • At Friday, June 13, 2008, Blogger Forrest Schultz said…

    Dear Martin,

    I only recommended that there be a new Synod of Dort. I do not have the authority to call one. But one sure is needed given all the deviations from Reformed thought and life in today's Reformed churches.


  • At Tuesday, January 19, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Nice brief and this mail helped me alot in my college assignement. Say thank you you seeking your information.


Post a Comment

<< Home