17 June 2015

Convivium 2015 Part 3: Niels Hemmingsen and Early Protestant Natural Law Thinking

A bit less familiar a subject but Eric Hutchinson's paper on Niels Hemmingsen (1513-1600) "Divine Law, Naturally: Lex Naturae and the Decalogue" demonstrated how early Protestants were not the voluntarists their critics sometimes allege. Hutchinson is a professor of Classics at Hillsdale College and Hemmingsen was a Danish Lutheran theologian and close friend of Philip Melancthon. He made no sharp distinction between God's nature and will. One can find support for Hemmingsen's "catholic" natural law thinking by comparing him to Aquinas with whom he shared most conclusions and even the reasons for those conclusions. Like his contemporaries, Hemmingsen argued that the Decalogue was a synecdoche of the natural law. Indeed, Hemmingsen argued that the four cardinal virtues were also grounded in the natural law.

That the first several generation of Reformers were thoroughly at home in the Western Christian natural law tradition should be a commonplace by now. Those who are interested in my take on the issue might find my article, God's Bridle: John Calvin's Application of Natural Law (download here) of interest.

New to me, however, was Hutchinson's explanation that it was only in the later Middle Ages that Christian theologians began to use the Ten Commandments as the framework for moral and ethical analysis. Only as part of the society-wide reform movement after the Papal Revolution of the eleventh century did the Church conclude that the original Big 10 would work well pedagogically to train Western Europe's population in basic Christian morality.

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