The “Strong Divine Command Theory Ethic” and neo-Lutheran Antinomianism

Manuel Moncloa. Verónica (San Antelmo) (d’aprés Zurbarán) ca. 1997

Manuel Moncloa, Verónica (San Antelmo) (d’aprés Zurbarán) ca. 1997

I’m resyndicating some comments from the blog Lutherans and Procreationas I think that time and the internet (and the devil?) have a way of letting such gems fall into the memory-hole– these comments were made over six years ago! There’s just so much out there on the web, after all. Who can keep track of it all? ( and Instapaper, that’s who!)

Today’s featured commentators are the Rev’d Dr. Gifford Grobien and the Rev’d Robert Baker. Their comments were made in the context of a discussion about contraception (indeed, the Lutherans and Procreation blog is well known for such discussions), but that need not be the exclusive context in which we consider what Grobien and Baker have to say. At the same time, it shouldn’t be dismissed a merely incidental context: the arena of procreational ethics (call it what you will) has a way of functioning as a sort of threshing-floor for the theological topics of antinomianism, sanctification, the third use of the law, etc. That is to say, such matters quickly become less topical and more real when the conversation turns to sexual ethics, as every Christian, especially every married Christian, has a “dog in the fight”, so to speak. And that dog’s name is Old Adam. But I digress…

On to some ponderable words by two thoughtful theologians. The comments start in medias res, so bear that in mind. For context, visit the original post and follow the rabbit-trail of links.

The Rev’d Dr. Gifford Grobien


Dr. Grobien speaking at the Acton Institute in 2013.

Dr. Heidenreich is correct in his account of the history of interpretation of contraception, but Rev. Brown challenges the validity of this interpretation because he does not see the argument in Scripture. The two gentlemen thus have not merely different opinions about contraception or the interpretation of this or that passage of Scripture, but they demonstrate epistemologies at odds. The interpretation offered by Dr. Heidenreich is a classical interpretation that operates out of ontological assumptions: what a creature does is related to who or what it is, and who or what it is is not simply the observable properties and characteristics, but the purpose for which the creature exists and the relationship he is engaged in. When purpose and relationship is assumed, then attributes are less likely to be seen as independent and incidental, but integrated with each other attributes and with other creatures. In other words, for human beings, because semen is emitted through sexual excitement which deepens the emotional bonds between the male and female, sexual relations are for procreation, satisfying sexual urges, and building loving unity. They all go together, and cannot be separated in an independent way, as if each aspect was unimportant for the flourishing of the other aspects.


The interpretation offered by Rev. Brown, on the other hand, even if he does not like it, is a modernist one. Yes, the skeptical aspect is postmodern. But what is fundamental is his move away from a holistic understanding of purpose that relies on ontology and relationship, to a subjective perspective that analyzes act and function as relatively independent from any metaphysical essence and purpose of the creature. Relationships and purposes may even be thought to be unchallenged presuppositions, and therefore should be discarded for a truly proper interpretation of a creature or action. From this perspective it is more difficult to make inferences and draw implications. So just because semen is emitted, and one is sexually aroused, and emotional attachment deepens in sexual relations doesn’t mean that these cannot be sharply distinguished or even separated when it comes to consideration of the integrity of the act or the complementarity of the aspects. Thus one would also be in greater need of explicit commands or passages from whatever one’s authority is (in this case, the Scriptures) for determining the integrity of the act and what is allowed or prohibited. So I suspect that you are at an impasse until you address this epistemological difference. Most people don’t think the way Dr. Heidenreich is arguing, which I think was his point in the first place.


Natural law theory is an extraordinarily complicated subject and deep disagreements have always existed even between the best natural law scholars. One of the traditional areas of disagreement has to do with simply what the natural law is. Is the natural law nature, or is the natural law reason? By this I mean, is what we observe in nature lawful simply because it occurs in nature, or is natural? Or is something naturally lawful because it accords with practical reason (prudence), that is, the pursuit of the good? Most developed natural law theory recognizes that the natural law is the latter, that is, the pursuit of the good. St Thomas actually acknowledged both (and a couple subsets of the former, at that), but was concerned primarily with the latter, as that is what concerns the human person. Dr Luther expresses it a lot more simply: Law is about what ought to be, not what is. Thus, the natural law is not simply what we observe occurring in nature according to laws of nature or animal instinct, but the natural law is what man ought to do to reach the good purpose for which he was created.




The exact nature of the third function of the Law has, to my knowledge, never been clarified. Even among Lutherans who do not deny the third function of the Law, many think that the third function is only one of killing. Indeed, Luther himself often speaks this way even in his later antinomian writings, such as the Antinomian Theses and Disputations. If the third function is only one of killing, then it serves to kill the old man that remains in the Christian after conversion, and the actual life of the new man is defined not just ultimately but only by the Gospel. The Law would serve to strip away the harassing old man so that the new man could live unhampered according to the Gospel.


It is not clear to me that the third function is only one of killing, however. The Law always kills in this creation, but does it only kill? If we understand the intellect as something that can grow and mature, and if we understand the Law to be divine reason that appeals to intellect, can not the law also simply teach? This is, in fact, what I believe to be the role of the Law for the new man. The new man himself has no need of the killing function of the law, yet the Law teaches his intellect, not specific actions, but prudence– that is, how to live in love toward God and his neighbor. Thus, even our Lord “kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:52).


The Law trains one to be prudent so that the natural law– pursue good and avoid evil– can be properly applied in every situation. If this is the case, Luther’s argument that the natural law is superior even to the Ten Commandments is more understandable: the Ten Commandments teach us how to apply the natural law and are in perfect harmony with it, even while the natural law is superior and prior because of its universal scope and application.

The Rev’d Robert C. Baker

BakerAt the turn of the last century many Christians were divided over the issue of evolution, the purpose, role, and authority of Scripture, etc. The world was changing. Because believers also use the language of the world, which brings with it ideas and concepts foreign to the faith, they begin to reflect and write on their faith in a different way. Some believers followed after the Princeton theologians and accepted Fundamentalism. Others, following Kant and Schleiermacher, accepted Liberalism. When you are accused of being a Fundamentalist, or a literalist, or a traditionalist, for example, most likely the person making such an exaggeration is operating from a Liberal set of beliefs, whether or not he or she is aware of it.


In addition to Fundamentalism, another reaction to Liberalism came through the teaching of Swiss Reformed theologian, Karl Barth. Barth denied natural law and taught a strong divine command theory ethic, which means that the only commands that are valid for the Christian are those that are recorded verbatim in Scripture. If you cannot find a Bible verse specifically condemning any activity, then you are free to do that activity.


I find this line of reasoning being utilized, with no apparent credit to Barth, by Missouri Synod theologians beginning in the 1930’s, about the same time as when Barth was having his famous debate with Emil Brunner. The strong divine command theory ethic is why, in my opinion, that modern Lutherans accept contraception (because it is not specifically condemned in Scripture), whereas orthodox Lutherans (Luther, Melanchthon, Chemnitz, Gerhard, et. al.) condemned it as violating the first, fourth, fifth, and six commandments. This method is also why “conservative” Lutherans are unable successfully to address current moral crises today. To wit, most current condemnations of the ELCA’s decision to allow same-sex unions and the ordination of gays and lesbians highlight that these are condemned in Scripture.


True, but same-sex attraction and activity also violates the moral law embedded in human nature. Even without Scripture, these folks should know better. If you don’t believe me, ask St. Paul.


Source: Lutherans and Procreation: The “Strong Divine Command Theory Ethic”

Check out Natural Law: A Lutheran Reappraisal. Robert Baker is the general editor and author of the included essay, “Natural Law, Human Sexuality, and Forde’s ‘Acid Test'”; Dr. Grobien is a contributor, as well, with an essay entitled “What Is The Natural Law? Medieval Foundations and Luther’s Appropriation.”

Additional Reading: